The sonatas on this disc range over sixty years, with a world
war separating each from the other and the earliest placed last.
Despite the somewhat random selection, this remains a useful
trio of “English Violin Sonatas”. The inverted commas are necessary
since the work by the Dubliner Stanford is not English at all
but Irish, and sounds it at least sometimes. A small point on
the inter-planetary scale, no doubt, but one over which battles
have been fought and bombs thrown, so maybe next time Regis
will be a little more careful over Irish susceptibilities.
Stanford was inclined from the first to compose works
in contrasted couples, and his earliest published chamber works
were a sonata each for cello – op.9 – and violin. The cello
sonata is an ambitiously structured work with slow introductions
to both outer movements – that to the finale substituting the
slow movement, of which there is none as such. The themes of
these introductions are then drawn into the body of the following
movements, making a bold and quite unusual scheme. The only
recording of this sonata so far is on Meridian
CDE 84482 where it is played by Alison Moncrieff Kelly (cello)
and the undersigned. It has been reviewed for MusicWeb International
by Jonathan Woolf.
The violin sonata is, on the face of it, a more straightforwardly
classical affair, with outer movements in sonata form and the
middle movement a set of variations. However, signs of individuality
keep creeping in. The themes of the first movement have a way
of starting as if derived from classical models – the hammering
octaves at the beginning, for example – and then tapering off
into Irish-sounding pendants. The slow movement theme, too,
starts like a hymn but its second period has a very folksy close.
The darker, minor-key variation looks ahead to Stanford’s epic-Celtic
vein. The finale begins in the minor key then immediately slips
into the major, retaining a certain major-minor ambivalence
throughout. Above all, we have an early example of Stanford
providing a middle section for a sonata-form movement that is
not a development but a new idea, which then reappears at the
close. Strikingly, this new idea is in the distant key of D
flat. Most engagingly, there is a feeling that continental forms
are being treated with a degree of Irish blarney. On the whole,
the work is an advance on the slightly earlier cello sonata.
The present recording was the first to be made. Though I always
try to snap up every major Stanford issue, this is one I didn’t
manage to get first time round. I must say that the thoughts
above are particularly prompted by hearing it now. It confirms
my feeling that the performance by Paul Barritt and Catherine
CDA67024) was not ideal.
Stanzeleit and Fenyň take longer over each movement. In the
first movement, though, the difference of nearly three minutes
is due to the fact that they play the exposition repeat, which
Barritt and Edwards omit. Stanzeleit and Fenyň are actually
faster and the music flows more joyously from them. In maturer
Stanford a broad tempo can often be an advantage, but Barritt
and Edwards make the music seem over-emphatic and ultimately
laboured. Strangely, the movement seems too long from the Hyperion
team, which it does not on the present disc, in spite of there
being more of it.
Stanzeleit and Fenyň get a more folk-inspired tone in the second
movement, where Barritt and Edwards emphasize the hymn-like
aspects. The Regis partners mine a vein of poetry, especially
in the last pages, which passes the other pair by. In the finale
Barritt and Edwards have a wider range of tempi. The new theme
in D flat is beautifully handled in itself, but the music comes
to a standstill whereas Stanzeleit and Fenyň are able to make
it relax without holding up the flow. From them, the music soars
irrepressibly to its conclusion.
At least, I think it does. Unfortunately my copy – not a review
copy but one I paid good money for while passing through London
last August – gets stuck around 4:29 of the finale. This on
two CD players and a computer. I even tried ripping the track
into my computer. All this achieved was that I could get past
the damaged section – the blip is visible to the naked eye –
and enjoy the last minute or so of the performance. It is to
be hoped that I have the only rogue copy – it also had the minor
irritation of a broken spider inside the cellophane wrapping
– but if, like me, you tend to buy discs and put them aside
for a rainy day some months hence, then make a point of checking
this one immediately.
The recording is the one aspect where the Hyperion disc is superior,
though not by much. The church acoustic here is a bit too swimmy
but you quickly get used to it and it certainly wouldn’t affect
my strong preference for the Regis performance, if only I could
hear it properly.
Richard Whitehouse in his generally helpful notes states that
Stanford left four violin sonatas. Yes and no. Apart from the
two numbered ones – the second is also included on Barritt’s
disc – Stanford wrote, late in life (1919), two “Sonatas for
violin with piano accompaniment”, op.165. He specifically did
not number them “Sonatas 3 and 4” since he regarded them as
a different genre. According to Porte (Sir Charles Stanford,
Kegan Paul, 1921), they “are expressly violin soli, with the
piano as accompanying instrument in much the same way as it
acts for songs, and may be viewed as distinct from the more
usual sonatas for violin and pianoforte duet”. How this actually
worked in practice is something we may never know since, despite
a performance of no.2 at the Wigmore Hall in 1919 by Murray
Lambert and Hamilton Harty, the sonatas were not published and,
unless there has been good news since Dibble and Rodmell published
their books on Stanford in 2002, the manuscripts have not been
I have collected quite a bit of Dunhill piano music in
second-hand shops over the years, most of it neatly written
educational pieces but a few that could be considered for concert
use. Neither these, nor some attractive songs, nor even the
warm-hearted Phantasy Suite for clarinet and piano, which gets
an occasional airing, prepared me for the riches offered by
the present violin sonata. The language is conservative, but
by adding a considerable use of augmented chords to a basically
Stanfordian harmonic armoury, Dunhill gives the music a French
twist. Listening blind, I think you would guess the composer
to be a highly gifted follower of Fauré.
The first movement wafts in, like the Franck sonata and so many
French pieces under its spell, as a bittersweet Proustian memory
of lost time. But, as so often in Fauré, a gently innocent theme
quickly proves capable of passionate heights, though in a very
civilized sort of way. The second subject is equally malleable
and Dunhill effortlessly sustains interest throughout the considerable
length (11:24). A wonderful discovery.
The following “Adagio lamentoso” requires, but repays, intense
concentration, its drum-taps reminding us that it was conceived
at the end of a horrifying war. The finale is all gushing exuberance.
Is it a notch less inspired than the other two? At times I felt
I was listening with sympathetic admiration, because the previous
movements had been so good, rather than total transport. It
is a problem with similar French works, even Fauré himself,
that soaring enthusiasm begins to pall in large doses. But I
already found myself more engaged on a second hearing, so maybe
time will alter my response. In any case, a sonata with a first
movement like this cannot be ignored.
The performance sounds ideal. In particular, Stanzeleit judges
her portamenti perfectly, so that they provide warmth without
becoming soupy. Fenyň is a warm-toned partner. Here the church
acoustic may be an asset.
Compared with the sumptuous tone poems that Bantock’s
admirers have been enjoying on disc, his late third violin sonata
is a spare, restrained work. I was only moderately engaged by
it, though it is nevertheless always agreeable. Although the
first movement is marked “Allegro con spirito” and the second
“Lento sostenuto”, in practice they sound too similar. Only
the lively, sometimes humorous, finale offers real contrast.
The first movement seems to make considerable use of a motif
from Bantock’s once popular “Song to the Seals”. I am left wondering
if this is deliberate or whether it is a symptom that Bantock
was by then revamping characteristic turns of phrase rather
uncritically. Bantock was a sufficiently major figure for it
to be desirable to have even his lesser works accessible, especially
when so well played. I can’t help thinking, though, that anyone
who buys the disc for Bantock will actually find much more of
what he wants in the Dunhill.
The Stanford and Dunhill, at least, deserve to be heard well
beyond the confines of the usual British music enthusiasts.
With such fine playing, do not hesitate if you like late romantic
violin sonatas wherever they come from. Just check your copy.