Stanford never actually got to publish a note of music for cello
and orchestra. I daresay it wouldn’t have occurred to anyone,
until quite recently, that he might have written enough, even
so, to fill a CD. A CD well worth making, it now turns out.
As far as we are aware, Stanford himself never heard any of
this music in its full orchestral garb. The earliest piece is
the Rondo in F, completed a little short of his 17th
birthday. It was written for Wilhelm Elsner, a teacher at the
Royal Irish Academy of Music. Jeremy Dibble’s unfailingly thorough
notes tell us that Elsner performed Stanford’s song with cello
obbligato, “O Domine Jesu”, in Dublin in 1870, with the great
soprano Thérèse Tietjens as soloist. But no record has been
found of a performance of the Rondo.
If Dubliners of the day did hear it, they might have found it
a little disconcerting. Each return of the rondo comes, not
so much with classical inevitability, but slyly creeping in
after an episode that has attempted to lead elsewhere. Today
this is all rather disarming.
Of interest, apart from the already confident handling of the
orchestra, is the way in which the more lyrical themes evoke
a type of Irishness – Field-through-Balfe-through-Wallace –
that Stanford later tended to be sniffy about. The main rondo
theme, too, sounds Irish in its bright top-of-the-morning-to-you
tone without being in any way folksy. It all shows that there
might have been more ways to become an Irish composer than the
ones Stanford eventually chose.
I would add a further thought. Early in the 20th
century Elgar made some pretty rude remarks about British composers
of rhapsodies, when “the one thing the Englishman cannot do
is rhapsodize”. This was generally taken as a swipe at Stanford,
whose first Irish Rhapsody was enjoying enormous success and
who preferred Brahmsian structural logic to rhapsodic freedom
– as Brahms’s own rhapsodies did. Be that as it may, what emerges
now is that the teenage Stanford could rhapsodize very nicely
while the older Stanford perhaps had other ideals.
An engaging, if not earth-shattering discovery, then.
Stanford wrote his Cello Concerto for Robert Hausmann, whom
he had met in Germany and who in 1877 had enthusiastically taken
up his first Cello Sonata, op.9, performing it in England and
elsewhere in Europe. This was quite a coup for the young composer,
since Hausmann was a major cellist and member of the Brahms-Joachim
circle. Brahms had written his second Cello Sonata for him and
Hausmann played in the first performances of Brahms’s Double
Concerto and Clarinet Trio.
In 1879 Stanford showed Hausmann the short score of his Cello
Concerto and incorporated various suggestions by the cellist
in his final full score of 1880. Evidently either Hausmann or
Stanford himself still had doubts. Just the middle movement
was given an airing at a Cambridge University Musical Society
concert in 1884, in a cello and piano version. Stanford made
no further attempt to promote it. As a further obstacle to anyone
interested, the first movement had a space for a cadenza which
Stanford no doubt hoped would have been supplied by Hausmann,
as that for Brahms’s Violin Concerto had been supplied by Joachim.
The previous recording of this work, by Alexander Baillie and
Nicholas Braithwaite on Lyrita (SRCD 321: review
had a lengthy cadenza provided by Baillie and incorporating
an Irish folksong which Stanford much later arranged under the
title of “The Falling Star”. We are not told who wrote the cadenza
for the new recording. Reference is made to a forthcoming edition
of the Concerto by George Burrows, so perhaps the cadenza is
his. It is a briefer affair, ably doing what it has to do without
overstaying its welcome.
It is difficult to understand why Hausmann implicitly thought
Stanford’s Sonata more deserving of his attention than the Concerto.
Today’s public might be more taken by the idea of a concerto
per se than a chamber work; perhaps this was not so
in the 1880s. Whatever, it’s a well-wrought piece, deftly and
often imaginatively scored – no easy matter with a solo cello
– with plenty of emphasis on the singing qualities of the solo
instrument. Its melodies are more pleasing than ear-grabbing
and it won’t replace the Elgar as the British cello
concerto, or the Dvor(ák as the romantic cello concerto,
but once the new edition is out I can foresee quite a few cellists
taking it up.
Alexander Baillie’s cadenza, if overlong, was evidence of a
passionate, even proprietary commitment to the work. This commitment
can be heard all through. He offers more variety of palette,
dynamics and pacing than Gemma Rosefield. Furthermore, Nicholas
Braithwaite’s Lyrita recordings of this time drew on his early
opera experience to combine spontaneity of feeling with flexibility
of pace. The two are a fine match.
Rosefield nevertheless plays very well. She and Manze take a
more classical view, noting Stanford’s “moderato” qualification
of the opening “allegro” and holding things fairly steady. Here
and there in the first two movements there is a feeling of stolidity
that seems to derive from the somewhat strait-laced conductor,
an impression that a decent piece of music is getting a decent
performance. In the last movement there is a sense of enjoyment
as the music trips gently along, offering a genuine alternative
to Baillie’s more extrovert rendering.
Overall, I’d say that Rosefield and Manze show that the concerto
can stand up without special pleading. On the other hand, Baillie’s
and Braithwaite’s extra pleading brings a clear added value.
From the young Stanford seeking to establish himself we move
ahead 33 years to an elderly Stanford whose once-high reputation
on the European stage was beginning to slip from view. No evidence
has been found that the 3rd Irish Rhapsody was played
at all until the 1987 BBC Northern Ireland broadcast that led,
two or three years later, to the Chandos recording by Raphael
Wallfisch and Vernon Handley.
The proportions of the work have worried some, since it is largely
taken up with a reflective slow section and a much shorter jig-like
concluding part. Of all Stanford’s Irish Rhapsodies, this is
the one that – pace Elgar – shows that he could truly
rhapsodize. This is something that Vernon Handley seems unwilling
to acknowledge. He presses on with a regular beat as though
afraid it will otherwise become amorphous. Furthermore, Wallfisch’s
tone, as recorded, is somewhat wiry and his staccatos in the
final section are resolved as rather aggressive spiccati.
Rosefield and Manze take an extra two-and-a-half minutes over
it. You can hear right from the start how ready they are to
trust the music and let it evolve at its own pace. Even when
the jig finally arrives, they are not afraid to let the tempo
drop back when Stanford brings in more reflective material.
Oddly enough, the music doesn’t become amorphous, somehow its
inner tensions take over and the proportions, however unorthodox,
sound right. This is a heartfelt performance of a lovely piece
of music. The Wallfisch/Handley version can now be disregarded
By the time Stanford wrote his third Irish Rhapsody he had completed
his seventh and last symphony. The Irish Rhapsody was now to
be his preferred orchestral form. He did not, however, turn
his back on the concerto, adding new ones for violin (his second,
1918) and piano (his third, 1919). Of these, the piano concerto
at least is an unusually proportioned piece and Stanford became
increasingly interested in writing works for solo instrument
and orchestra that were not quite concertos as such. The third
Irish Rhapsody could be considered the first of the line, followed
by the Irish Concertino for violin, cello and orchestra (1918),
the Variations for violin and orchestra (1921), the Concert
Piece for Organ, brass, drums and strings (1921) and the sixth
Irish Rhapsody for violin and orchestra (1922). Clearly part
of this trend is the Ballata and Ballabile, practically
a cello concerto without a first movement. The opening “ballad”
is one of the composer’s most expansively poetic creations while
the “dance-piece” is amiably eccentric in its far-fetched modulations
and changes of gait.
Stanford provided an alternative version for cello and piano
– this also remained unpublished – and the work was played in
this guise at the Wigmore Hall by Beatrice Harrison and Hamilton
Harty in 1919. Filed with the manuscript of this version, in
the British Library, is the relevant page from Frederick Hudson’s
never-published catalogue of Stanford’s works, in which he notes
that the Harrison estate held a set of MS orchestral parts,
now in private hands. The parts envisaged a small orchestra,
with just two desks each of first and second violins and one
each for the other strings. This suggests that Stanford saw
some prospect of at least a private run-through of the orchestral
score, but no performance is known until the BBC Northern Ireland
recording of 1988 with Raphael Wallfisch and Lionel Friend.
This is one piece from the Belfast series that wasn’t later
recorded for Chandos, so the present CD is the first of the
orchestral version and the first of the Ballabile in any form.
The cello and piano version of the Ballata was recorded
by Alison Moncrieff Kelly accompanied by the undersigned.
As an obviously interested party I shall have to watch what
I say, but I would like to add a personal recollection on the
tempo for the Ballata. Stanford’s piano score – I haven’t
seen the orchestral one – was originally marked “Allegretto”,
then crossed out and replaced by “Andante con moto”. With this
in mind I originally prepared myself for a fairly flowing tempo.
At the first rehearsal, Alison led off at a tempo so much slower
than I had expected that I immediately stopped and queried it.
Alison replied that she had very strong feelings about this
music and she begged me to hear it through once the way she
had in mind, then if necessary we would discuss it. She then
proceeded to give a performance of such intensity and sincere
feeling that I wouldn’t have changed a note of it. If the microphones
had been on, our work would have been done. Barring a little
tidying up, the performance that went onto the CD was as she
played it that first time. All the same, while I was utterly
convinced that this slow tempo was right for Alison, and at
that particular moment, I retain some doubt as to whether it’s
right in an absolute sense – but then, does any music have a
tempo that’s right in an absolute sense, for whoever plays it,
where and when?
Rather to my surprise, the new performance has a virtually identical
tempo – it saves a minute or so by moving on slightly here and
there. It is, though, more gently autumnal, more ruminative
in tone. It is not really for me to say more, except that I
think Alison’s performance should not be forgotten and that
the Meridian CD demonstrates that the piano version is a genuine
alternative with a character of its own, not just a stop-gap
if you don’t have an orchestra handy.
I’m not sure that the piano version of the Ballabile
is a viable alternative in the same way. The piano writing is
a bit lumpy, rather obviously arranged from an orchestral original.
For which reason I’ve never much regretted that session time
didn’t permit Alison and I to record it, though we had prepared
it. If we had, ours would have been a more strenuous march-jig
compared to the daintily tripping allegretto we get from Rosefeld
and Manze. This latter view is entirely convincing on its own
terms, so unless and until somebody sets down a more gutsy,
virile sort of interpretation there seems little point in arguing
the pros and cons.
The Stanford situation on CD is complicated almightily by the
issue of couplings. If you want every important piece of his
that’s available, in the best performances, you’re going to
end up with quite a lot of duplications. If you can’t afford
that, or only want a representative selection, I just wouldn’t
know how to advise you what to leave out. If you’ve got the
Baillie version of the Concerto, you’ll surely want to stick
to it. But you’ll need the present disc for the only version
of the admittedly slight Rondo, the best version by far of the
Rhapsody and the only version, complete and with orchestra,
of the Ballata and Ballabile. If you rely on Rosefield
for the Concerto, it’s still a good performance, but the Baillie
is coupled with the only recording of the third Piano Concerto,
arguably Stanford’s finest. The Wallfisch/Handley third Rhapsody
is now superseded, but it comes with the other five and Handley,
for all his shortcomings, still offers the only recordings of
nos. 2, 5 and 6 and the only modern one of no. 1 (review).
And, if you are not convinced you need a piano-accompanied Ballata
now there’s an orchestral one to be had, the Meridian disc still
offers the only recording of the first Cello Sonata, and maybe
the only available one of the second – I’m not sure about the
current situation re the ASV catalogue, which contains the Julian
Lloyd Webber/John McCabe version of the second Sonata (ASV CD
DCA 807). Over to you …
See also review by Michael