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Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Cello Concerto in D minor (1880) [25:42]; Rondo in F (1869) [8:32]; Ballata and Ballabile op.160 (1918) [19:14]; Irish Rhapsody no. 3 op.137 (1913) [16:36]
Gemma Rosefield (cello)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Manze
rec. 6-7 January 2011, City Hall, Candleriggs, Glasgow
HYPERION CDA67859 [70:08]

Experience Classicsonline

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 review 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 entirely.
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 on Meridian 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 …
Christopher Howell

See also review by Michael Cookson