The Stanford discography is steadily growing, yet when these performers gave the Second Piano Concerto its belated Proms première in 2008, the response suggested that the London critics still lived back in the dark age when Stanford was merely an Interesting Historical Figure, not a composer that one might seriously perform and listen to. Strange that there should be such a gulf between what it is acceptable to record and what it is acceptable to perform live. Maybe, too, between those who comment on the two different situations. However, in the assumption that the Proms performance was similar to the one here (I was not present), it is clear that no blame for the lukewarm reaction can be laid at the performers’ door.
These two works have already been coupled on Chandos by Margaret Fingerhut and Vernon Handley. It is indeed a logical pairing of Stanford’s most accessible works for piano and orchestra – accessible in the literal sense that they were the only two published, so scores and performing materials are relatively easy to obtain. Indeed, 2-piano versions – but not full scores – of both pieces can be downloaded from the IMSLP-Petrucci Library.
Both CDs place the concerto first, but it seems more logical to hear and discuss them in their chronological order.
The bluff, nautical cut of the “Down among the Dead Men” theme suggests a parallel with the slightly later “Songs of the Sea”. It is tempting to think of this as the “English” Stanford as opposed to the “Irish” Stanford of “Shamus O’Brien”, the Irish Rhapsodies and countless songs. However, an Irish folksong arrangement such as “Johnny Cox”, seemingly the progenitor of the “Songs of the Sea”, suggests that our sea-shanties actually have a good deal of Irish blood in them. As the variations unfold, Stanford extracts from the theme an array of Irish-sounding war-songs and jigs, together with some poetic evocations of the Irish glens and loughs. While the theme itself is transformed in many ways, the four-note descending figure he derives from it, heard at the outset, dominates the whole work, which is notable for both its variety and its cohesion.
The Chandos recording was very well played by Fingerhut. It seems a good example of the sort of sight-reading-plus, instant interpretation that Handley could famously achieve of an unknown piece with minimum rehearsal. It all goes with a swing in a generalized sort of way, but the new performance is a little more sharply characterized at practically every point. In particular, each new variation establishes its particular shape from the word go. Just to give two examples, the tranquillo with which the piano enters in the first variation and the ostinato bass in the second variation are more precisely etched. Not that the old version was so poor – it wasn’t poor at all – that those who have it should immediately replace it with the new one. But it’s to the Collins/Montgomery performance that newcomers are directed.
The Second Concerto was written not long after Stanford had conducted a performance of Rachmaninov’s Second Concerto, with the composer himself at the piano. A lot has been said about Stanford’s supposed cribbing of the Russian composer’s opening gambit. The similarities are:
Both works are in C minor, as are several thousand other works, including piano concertos.
Stanford opens with an orchestral “crack”, which Rachmaninov doesn’t.
Stanford has the pianist launch straight into arpeggios over a striding bass, while Rachmaninov has the pianist play a sequence of slow chords on his own before launching into arpeggios.
When the theme arrives over the pianist’s arpeggios – this would be the “crib” – Rachmaninov presents a long thematic period on the strings while Stanford has a heroic rising figure on the horns, followed by a fairly fragmented pendant on the strings, saving his long, lyrical material for the second subject.
These are all the similarities I can think of. The funny thing is that they aren’t similarities, they’re differences. Jeremy Dibble, in his notes to the Claves CD, suggests the use of dark, lower orchestral sonorities as a possible consequence of Stanford’s admiration for the Rachmaninov concerto. Perhaps, but the use of lower orchestral sonorities was a Stanford characteristic already. Furthermore, if you listen to the first minute or so of the Variations, which predate the Rachmaninov, and then the opening of the Concerto, the tone and colouring are exactly the same.
There are nevertheless some other differences that had better not go unsaid.
The melancholy sweep of Rachmaninov’s opening theme, its obsessive neurosis and nostalgia, have tugged at the hearts of even unmusical listeners for about a century and show no sign of losing their spell. Attractive, even inspiring, as it is, the Stanford does not reach the hearts of the millions in this same way. Can you imagine a remake of the film “Brief Encounter” using Stanford 2 instead of Rachmaninov 2? The Stanford is not, in any case, neurotic or obsessive, it is healthy, heroic, bold, at times tender and evocative.
The Rachmaninov is the work of a supremely great pianist and its figuration and colour derive from the very nature of the piano itself. The Stanford is effectively laid out for the piano, but it doesn’t provide the same pianistic challenge. It didn’t expand the language of the piano concerto. In this sense the Stanford more resembles the piano writing of Tchaikovsky or Dvorák.
All this is not to say that the Stanford is not a good piece. It may even appeal to some who resist the neuroses of the Rachmaninov. But let us be realistic. It would be possible to claim that the mastery of means and pure inspiration of certain Stanford pieces such as “Justorum animae”, “The Blue Bird”, some of the Bible Songs and really quite a lot of his shorter works, are as great in their own line as Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto is in its own line. Some of Stanford’s chamber works, too, display a mastery and concentration that I do not find here. I can’t find the same perfect focus in this concerto. Which is not to say it is right that there should not be even one performance of the Stanford for every 9,999 of the Rachmaninov.
The Second Concerto is now receiving its fourth recording. I haven’t heard the Jetter/Vassiliev version (Antes Edition
), well received by Rob Barnett. The première recording was a Lyrita LP, now on Lyrita CD
, by Malcolm Binns and Nicholas Braithwaite. This suffered from Binns’s tendency to produce hard tone in forte passages – unless the CD transfer has improved this; I still have the LP. CD transfer would be powerless to correct the performers’ tendency to pull the work around too much for its own good. The first movement gets sticky in second subject territory and the second movement opens with a very mannered statement of the theme from the pianist. The conductor also indulges in some over-succulent string phrasing, lending a Palm Court air to the central part of the first movement. None of this helped to counteract suspicions that the work was agreeable but amorphous.
Fingerhut is able to produce weight without losing her well-rounded tone. She also provided limpidly poetic playing of the gentler episodes. Handley seems to have responded more deeply to the Concerto than to the Variations. He keeps the structure tautly under control, but without straight-jacketing either it or the pianist, as could happen elsewhere. The finale has great panache. I don’t admire all of Handley’s Stanford Symphony and Rhapsody cycle and I’m inclined to think this is his best Stanford recording (Chandos
The approach by Collins and Montgomery is not really all that different. Collins, too, can produce weight without hardening, and has plenty of poetry, as well as dash, where needed. A few phrases seemed to me a little more strongly shaped here, but I would have to listen carefully several times to decide whether they’re really improvements or just different. However, there is one episode where I think the new Claves disc gains. In the finale, where Stanford brings back the slow movement theme, there is always a risk, as in a similar moment in the César Franck Symphony, that this may seem an unwelcome intrusion from a theme that shouldn’t be there. But Stanford does specify that it should go faster than in the Adagio and Collins and Montgomery get it just right, sweetly flowing without holding up the musical progress.
So, on balance, I should make this my recommendation. The couplings cloud the issue, however. The Fingerhut/Handley comes in a 2-CD package with the 6 Irish Rhapsodies. Though I think that Handley got the music badly wrong in some of these, in four pieces out of six there is no alternative and they are essential Stanford. The Binns/Braithwaite comes with a better performance of the 4th
Irish Rhapsody than Handley’s and the “Becket” Funeral March, unavailable elsewhere and the only Stanford recording made by Sir Adrian Boult, though perhaps not one of his greatest efforts. The Jetter/Vassiliev is coupled with one of Schumann’s shorter pieces for piano and orchestra.
Information-packed notes from Jeremy Dibble. The Chandos disc had an excellent presentation too, by Lewis Foreman, and so for that matter did the Lyrita, by Geoffrey Bush. Interesting that the first recording of these works by an Irish pianist, orchestra and conductor should have been made by a Swiss company.