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Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Piano Trio no.1 in E flat major op.35 (1889) [31:43]
Legend (1893) [5:32]
Six Irish Fantasies op.54 (1894): 3. Jig [5:37], 5. Hush Song [6:45]
Piano Quartet no. 2 in C minor op.133 (1913) [30:10]
Gould Piano Trio (Lucy Gould (violin), Alice Neary (cello), Benjamin Frith (piano)) David Adams (viola, quartet)
rec. 14-16 December 2009, The Music Room, Champs Hill, Pulborough, Sussex UK
NAXOS 8.572452 [79:48]

Experience Classicsonline



With this recording of Stanford’s Second Piano Quartet, all of Stanford’s chamber music for piano and two or more strings – three Piano Trios, two Piano Quartets and a Piano Quintet – has now been made available. The three pieces for solo violin and piano are also first recordings, but since only two of the six Irish Fantasies have been set down, I presume there is currently no intention to record all Stanford’s works for this combination. So far as I am aware, nos. 2 and 4 of the op. 54 pieces remain unrecorded.

The First Piano Trio belongs to that period when Stanford must have felt he had the musical world at his feet. He was successful in Germany as well as in England, he was befriended and performed by artists of the calibre of Hans von Bülow and Joachim. The new trio drew an enthusiastic response from the former of these, its dedicatee. It was among the Stanford works that retained a certain currency at least in England, and faded from view only when the post-World War II climate rejected Victorian art en bloc. In 1889 he could apparently look forward to producing a long series of well-received major works. By 1914 enough of his reputation remained for the 4th Irish Rhapsody to receive its première under the great Willem Mengelberg. Yet the Second Piano Quartet achieved a single performance in the Bechstein (now Wigmore) Hall in that same year and was not published. It remained dormant until the present recording and a performance by the same forces in 2010. The manuscript has been edited by Jeremy Dibble, who also provides the authoritative notes.

Much has been written about the changes to the musical climate that brought about Stanford’s gradual disappearance from the public view even during his own lifetime. Suffice to say that no one who buys this CD – which deserves to be a bestseller – is likely to conclude that Stanford himself had failed to deliver. Furthermore, while Stanford’s use of first-movement sonata form in his symphonies always retained a certain academic correctness – and in fact he gradually abandoned the symphony in favour of the Irish Rhapsody for his major orchestral statements – he allowed himself a more inventive approach to form in his chamber music.

Stanford seems to have been particularly impressed by Brahms’s device, in his Fourth Symphony, of starting his development section with a restatement of the opening theme in the tonic. The unwary listener supposes for a moment that he is hearing an exposition repeat but soon realizes that the symphonic argument is forging seamlessly ahead. The first movement of the First Piano Trio is not the only occasion when Stanford adopted this technique, but manipulating it entirely for his own purposes. In effect, the movement becomes three statements – rather than a first statement, a development and a restatement. The second statement is the most varied, the third statement closer to the original one. Brahms’s symphonic growth is thereby replaced by a finely controlled rhapsody in which Stanford’s lyrical gifts flower freely.

The second movement is a charming intermezzo. Two features are worth pointing out. The first is that the theme is almost identical in its first four notes to that of the finale of Stanford’s slightly later (1891) Second String Quartet. But that word “almost” speaks volumes. In the quartet, the fourth note of the scale is alternately sharpened and flattened in a play between “western” and “folk” scales. In the piano trio, it is always flattened. It is as though Stanford was struck by potentialities of the theme which he had not explored the first time round, and therefore returned to it.

The other notable feature is the motive consisting of a falling fifth with a humorous semiquaver pendant. This has a very Irish feel and is nearly but not quite a quotation from “The Confession”, an Irish folk-tune which Stanford had included in “Songs of Old Ireland” not so many years previously (1882).

Ostensibly, this work has no slow movement. In reality, the minuet with two trios that follows would appear another exercise in making things not quite what they seem. A casual listener to this gravely generous outpouring – which makes no attempt at the grace usually associated with the minuet – might well suppose he had actually heard a slow movement.

The finale opens with a rising arpeggio theme over a galloping piano accompaniment which, in its swift tonic-dominant alternations, suggests a parallel with Stanford’s setting of R.L. Stevenson’s “Windy Nights”. “A Child’s Garland of Songs”, in which the latter appears, was published in 1892 and Dibble dates it to that year. However, its opus number, 30, implies a date of 1887-8. This is the date given by Rodmell. The parallel with the Piano Trio suggests that “Windy Nights” existed in some form prior to 1889.

Of rather more significance is the resemblance between this theme and the second theme in the finale to the Third Piano Trio of 1918. The later work has a similar galloping piano part and another rising arpeggio motif suggesting high aspirations. The resemblance is not an actual quotation, and to those who prefer to see it as coincidence I have no definite answer. The use of quotations and near-quotations, from himself and from others, is a constant feature right through Stanford’s work – I have explored this in an article, “Stanford and Musical Quotation”, to be found on MusicWeb International. The Third Piano Trio was composed to the memory of two of his friend Alan Gray’s sons who had died during the war. It is fully likely, therefore, that Stanford was looking back to the innocent days of 1889 and the easy, amicable relations then possible with the Germans, and consciously closing a cycle. Another work of 1918, “Songs of a Roving Celt”, also concludes with a near quotation, from the earlier song cycle “An Irish Idyll”. Further proof that Stanford in those years was revisiting emotions from earlier, happier days.

The previous recording of the First Piano Trio, coupled with the First Piano Quartet, was by the Pirasti Trio (ASV CD DCA 1056). The Pirasti Trio had earlier made their Stanfordian bow with a version of the Second Piano Trio (ASV CD DCA 925) where the tempi were far too fast for my ears. They had reined themselves in by the second disc and I had no reservations over their performance of the First Piano Trio. The Gould Piano Trio nevertheless take slower tempi in the outer movements. Stanford’s tempo indications would seem to support their view, but in truth I find myself unable to prefer either performance over the other. The Gould Piano Trio perhaps make the music sound more mature, but the Pirasti Trio’s more free-flowing first movement and impetuous finale evoke effectively the ebullience of the young Stanford’s personality at this stage in his life. The other difference is that, while the three players of the Pirasti Trio are excellent musicians, and so are the string players of the Gould Piano Trio, Benjamin Frith is something more. He is the sort of exceptionally gifted artist who gives a clear profile, a sense of character and a meaning to everything he plays. At times a theme, first heard on the strings and very nicely handled, assumes its full flowering when Frith takes it up. He is, however, too good a musician to deliberately outplay his colleagues and his presence tends to inspire rather than dwarf them. All the same, the Gould performance is a little more piano-led than the Pirasti one. Only time will tell if I find myself listening to one more than the other. For the moment I am just delighted that this major work now has two recordings fully worthy of it.

The “Legend”, to which Stanford did not even attach an opus number, shows what treasures can sometimes emerge from the more unsuspected corners of his output. The opening theme is about as sweetly, tenderly and hauntingly Irish as anything can be. The leprechaun lightness of the contrasting sections is no less so. Lucy Gould plays it with a sense of self-communing that is highly attractive. Only a memory of the heartfelt, throbbing yet pure timbre the great (and lamented) Josef Suk brought to the Dvorák “Romance” makes me wonder if more still might be mined from this piece.

The “Six Irish Fantasies” were written for Lady Hallé, who often played them. The opening page of the “Jig” sounds like a blueprint for all the folksy finales written over the next couple of generations by the likes of Holst and Moeran. The title, combined with the exuberant beginning, may lead the listener to expect a brilliant, entertaining piece of no great weight. In reality this is a “Jig with Variations”, the variations gradually moving away from the jig character until a gently meditative mood is reached in a slower tempo. Exuberance returns for a brief coda, though the pizzicato ending sounds like a question mark. Once the listener has grasped all this, it is possible to hear it again with duly adjusted expectations and appreciate a resourceful and varied little tone poem. The problem seems to be the title rather than the music itself.

This “Jig” may just possibly be an application, on a smaller scale, of Dvorák’s formal technique in the finale of his Eighth Symphony, also a set of variations in which the opening bustle gradually gives way to self-communing, to be brushed away in a brief coda. Dvorák had conducted the first British performance of his Eighth Symphony in London in 1890. Very significantly, he conducted it again at a concert of the Cambridge University Musical Society, of which Stanford himself was the guiding force, on the occasion of his honorary doctorate in 1891. So this symphony was still fresh in Stanford’s mind when he wrote his “Irish Fantasies”.

“Hush Songs”, as the Irish call their lullabies, figure largely in Stanford’s output. Whether so-called, or simply denominated a “lullaby” of some description, his folksong settings include seven, running from his earliest published folksong arrangement (1876) through to a piece in the final group published in 1924. His original songs include four, again ranging from the early “Schlummerlied” op.7/6 to words by Heine (pub. 1878) to the Leveson Gower setting in his last group of songs with an opus number (op.175/5, pub.1921). To judge from the number of second hand copies still floating around, his version of Dekker’s “Golden Slumbers” (op.19/2, 1882) and “A Japanese Lullaby” (pub. 1918) were particularly prized for many years. There are also two lullabies among his works for 2-part female chorus and piano, one to words by Blake. Instrumental lullabies are slightly rarer. Nevertheless, apart from the present example, the later set of “6 Irish Sketches” op.154 (1918) concludes with a “Hush Song”, a simple little “Lullaby” for piano solo (from “Six Sketches – Primary”, pub. 1918) has sometimes figured in Associated Board examination lists and a rather more elaborate “Hush Song” figures among his later organ works (op.189/3, pub. 1923). Such was the resourcefulness, inventiveness and technical variety with which Stanford approached this genre that it would be instructive rather than monotonous to hear all 17 of these pieces one after the other. Common to most of them, and certainly to the one heard here, is the use of an ostinato countermelody that pervades the entire piece. When played with the sensitivity of a Benjamin Frith, the result is magical indeed. Lucy Gould again adopts a introverted manner which might seem rather small on the concert platform. Her first note is almost inaudible even on disc. More important, however, is the real sensitivity and affection for the music she shows.

The Second Piano Quartet opens with a slow introduction. A rising arpeggio motive is introduced not dissimilar to that which ushers in and pervades Parry’s recently-composed Fifth Symphony. The furrow-brows soon give way to a chorale with rippling piano accompaniment that transports us straight into the Irish hills. The Allegro proper breaks in peremptorily but the introduction proves to be no throat-clearing. It is extended at the beginning of the development section and again in the recapitulation. In other words, it is drawn into the body of the music.

But the whole movement, if ostensibly in first-movement sonata form, twists this form in unexpected ways. The music is far more about thematic transformation than about symphonic growth. The second subject, rightly described by Jeremy Dibble in his notes as “wonderfully generous”, becomes rhythmically assertive in the central section and then appears in a wistful minor-key version in the recapitulation. While the passionate minor-key first subject opens the recapitulation in a radiant C major. This movement strikes me as quite extraordinary in its easy mastery and shifting, ambivalent expression.

The slow movement has a folk-like theme that alternates 5/8 and 3/8. Stanford did not often have recourse to “unusual” time signatures, so it is interesting that another rare case where he did so was in the opus immediately preceding this – the “Study” for piano op.132/3 (1912). The grimly vigorous scherzo has a buoyant trio. A close variant of the trio theme reappears in the later song “The Sailor Man” op.174/2 (1920), whether deliberately or not I cannot say. The resemblance certainly underlines the Irish character of the theme. The Sailor Man, home at last, strolls through the Irish city admiring the Irish girls. A similar sense of joyful homecoming pervades this part of the Piano Quartet.

The finale is relatively uncomplicated and the main theme is punctuated by sharp chords evocative of a group of convivial Irishmen raising their glasses. But there is enough uncertainty beneath its apparent bonhomie to counter any charge of superficiality. The performance is completely convincing, concluding an essential disc for anyone interested in romantic chamber music, and I don’t just mean British romantic chamber music. Hopefully, the Gould Piano Trio will now give us the Second Piano Trio in a more measured performance to supplant the over-hasty Pirasti version.

Scores and parts of the three Piano Trios, the First Piano Quartet and the Piano Quintet can be downloaded free from the ISMLP-Petrucci library. The Second Piano Quartet is more problematic, obviously. It is to be hoped that a publisher will be found for Prof. Dibble’s edition so that this, too, will be readily available. 96 years lapsed between the work’s first performance and what is believed to have been its second. It would be a pity if unavailability of the score caused another 96 years to pass before it is heard again, except by way of this disc.

We used to be told that Stanford was only good – if at all – at writing miniatures. As larger works emerged from oblivion we were warned that he was very uneven, only a few things could be saved from his laborious over-production. Funny, then, that now we can hear all his music for piano and two or more strings, and all six pieces have turned out to be fine and rewarding works.

Christopher Howell

 


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