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Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
The Complete Works for Violin and Piano
Full contents list at end of review
Alberto Bologni (violin); Christopher Howell (piano)
rec. Studio ‘L’Eremo’, Lessona, Italy, 25-26 January, 24-25 June, 22-23 July 2013
SHEVA SH100 [3 CDs: 65:42 + 79:05 + 74:48] 

Things are not nearly as bad for the admirer or potential admirer of Stanford’s chamber music as they were a couple of decades ago. The Clarinet Sonata has had a good run for its money on disc and the two violin sonatas have been recorded, but much remained on the shelf. Now we have a three-CD box of the complete music for violin and piano from Alberto Bologni and Christopher Howell.
 
It was Howell, some may remember, who partnered Alison Moncrieff Kelly in the two Cello Sonata on Meridian CDE84482 (Julian Lloyd Webber and John McCabe’s ASV recording of the D minor sonata came first) and who can now assuredly lay claim to be the composer’s most ardent chamber champion on disc, if not indeed in performance.
 
The three discs are presented in ‘listener friendly’ programmes, so that the two sonatas are not heard consecutively simply because they are sonatas. In any case given that there are a large number of Irish pieces and genre works it makes sense for the listener to focus on a particular corner of Stanford’s writing - the dances and marches, say, or the Characteristic Pieces, which include a variety of forms; or even the arrangements he made, which the Stanfordian should know even though they are not of huge import as works in themselves.
 
If one starts with the sonatas, collectors will know that the First has been recorded at least twice before. Suzanne Stanzeleit and Gustáv Fenyő recorded it on United 88031; Paul Barritt and Catherine Edwards recorded it with the companion Second Sonata and other works [now on CDH55362]. Bologni and Howell offer a complementary and very different take on the work, which shows that it can survive such approaches. Barritt and Edwards take a driving approach throughout, slicing through the occasionally Schumannesque syntax in record time. Stanzeleit and Fenyő are more reserved though only slightly less so in the finale. Bologni and Howell offer the most Brucknerian solution, often significantly slower than their rivals but finding something a little unsettling in the central movement’s variations, and plenty of wit at a good tempo in the finale. I’ve yet fully to reconcile myself to their first movement, but possibly the rather flat acoustic doesn’t help. In contradistinction I think their performance of the Second Sonata is probably the single best performance in the set. This gets a mightily convincing reading, excellently proportioned, lyrically affecting in the slow movement, finely characterised throughout and taken at musically effective tempi. Barritt and Edwards take similar sorts of tempi too and it’s only really Barritt’s tonal lustre – Bologni’s vibrato is sometimes too slow and lacking in colour – and superior recording quality that separates them.
 
The first disc contains the first recording of the violin adaptation of the Three Intermezzi of 1879 with their Schumannesque precedent of the Romanzen. There’s much to enjoy in this set of three, badinage and contrasting lyricism. I was rather taken by the Legend, written somewhere around 1893 as it sounds extremely well laid out for the two instruments and has a nobly expressive profile. There are first recordings for the light-hearted Six Irish Dances and the Five Bagatelles in Valse-Form, his last original work for the violin and piano. The second disc continues in this vein with a first complete recording of the Six Irish Fantasies of 1893. Barritt includes the Caoine in his Stanford disc with Edwards, and is to be preferred to Bologni and Howell who rather love it to death. The Jig is somewhat discursive in its mid section though the Dvořák influence, sometimes hovering over Stanford, is quite overt. The Reel is a galvanising, indeed dashing way to end this most engaging set. Barritt and Edwards offer The Five Characteristic Pieces complete in their Helios disc and predictably they step very much more briskly through them. It’s a very personal matter as to which one is to be preferred – if indeed preference is relevant. I prefer to enjoy both viewpoints, the one lithe and quicksilver, the other more grand seigniorial and relaxed. I would however point to the differences in the gondola ride (No.3) in the set, where Barritt and Edwards are dextrously charming à la Reynaldo Hahn and Bologni and Howell sound as if they never want the slow rather lumpy journey ever to end. Bologni’s tonal palette is too circumscribed to make L’Envoi effective at this speed – it drags. The Three Irish Airs that Stanford arranged around 1922-23 receive their first recording – you’ll already have noted how many first-ever recordings are here, an invaluable feature of this cornerstone Stanford and British chamber music collection. Finally in disc two is what’s described as the first recording of the c.1917 version for violin and piano of the Irish Dances, Op.89 (1903). Almost correct – it’s the first complete recording. Back in 1928 Isolde Menges and Eileen Beattie recorded the charming Leprechaun’s Dance which was the filler to Menges’s recording (the first ever) of The Lark Ascending. I have to say that, admiring as I am of Bognoli and Howells’s enterprise, they sound rather ponderous by the side of these eminent forerunners. In addition to the Second Sonata the last disc gives a first complete recording of the Six Irish Sketches – little capsule pieces – and the first recording, in Christopher Howell’s performing edition, of the Six Irish Marches. The rather English Six Sketches includes a Morris Dance and a Gavotte but they are rather negligible and the best of the set is the Arietta with variations, which is certainly deserving of extraction.
 
Not only are the discs presented as digestible programmes in themselves – should you wish to listen to them in this way – they were seemingly recorded thus. The sessions were taped in January, May and July 2013. As noted the sound perspective is rather shallow and lacks bloom but it’s not a major deficit. Howells’s booklet is a splendid affair, elegantly written and pertinently footnoted. Stanfordians owe it to themselves to read it, and I learned a lot from it. We can all be enthusiastic that this body of music has been recorded so comprehensively, scrupulously and intelligently.
 
Jonathan Woolf

Previous review: John France (January 2014 Recording of the Month)

Full contents list
 
CD 1
Violin Sonata No. 1 in D major, Op. 11 (c.1877) [27:02]
Three Intermezzi, Op. 13 (1879) [8:57]
Legend (c.1893) [6:17]
Album Leaf (c.1899) [2:30]
Six Irish Dances, selected and arranged for violin and piano (c.1922/23) [7:57]
Five Bagatelles in valse form, Op. 183 (pub.1921) [12:46]
 
CD 2
Six Irish Fantasies, Op. 54 (1893) [32:33]
Five Characteristic Pieces, Op.93 (1905) [25:26]
Three Irish Airs, arranged for violin and piano (c.1922/23) [9:51]
Four Irish Dances, Op.89 Nos. 1, 3 and 4 (1917) [10:59]
 
CD 3
Six Irish Sketches, for violin and piano Op. 153 (1918) [19:30]
Six Irish Marches, selected and arranged for violin and piano (c.1922/23) [7:04]
An Ancient Melody, for violin and piano (c.1922/23) [3:44]
Planxty Sudley (c.1922/23) [2:17]
Six Sketches for violin and piano, Op.155 (pub.1918) [15:16]
Violin Sonata No. 2 in A major, Op. 70 (c.1897/8) [26:42]