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Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Complete Music for Piano Solo - Volume 2
Two Novellettes (1874) [10:03]
Suite, op.2 (c.1875) [12:36]
‘Fare Well’ (1916) [7:51]
Six Song-Tunes (1919/20) [6:23]
A Toy Story (For the Children (1919/20) [8:44]
Ten Dances (Old and New) for Young Players, op.58 (1894) [23:55]
Toccata in C major, op.3 (1875) [4:36]
Sonatina in D minor (1922) [9:34]
Sonatina in G major (1922) [10:06]
Twenty Four Preludes in all the keys, op.179 (1920) [52:37]
Christopher Howell (piano)
rec. Studio of Griffa and Figli s.r.l., Milan, Italy, 29 October 2013, 14 January, 6 May and 9 September 2014
SHEVA SH125 [74.23 + 72:32]

It would be easy for listeners to dismiss this edition of the complete piano music of Charles Villiers Stanford as a conceit. Here is a composer who is writing sub-Brahms, Schumann, and occasionally Wagner, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. At this time, Debussy and Scriabin, in Europe and Cyril Scott, William Baines and John Ireland in the United Kingdom were in the vanguard of pianism. The ‘insidious’ influence of jazz had arrived from the USA and was beginning to influence musicians in Europe. In 1909 Arnold Schoenberg issued his atonal (but beautiful) Three Piano Pieces, op.11. These are a million miles away from everything on these discs.

Yet this reviewer would give up a lot of piano music from ‘progressive’ composers to be enabled to enjoy what Stanford has written for the piano. I have wondered why this is. I believe it comes down to three things: honesty, technical competence and sheer musical pleasure with perhaps a fourth reason for good measure: the hint of the Celtic Dawn.

The second volume of Christopher Howell's major exploration of Stanford’s piano music opens with Two Novellettes. These date from 1874 and have remained in holograph until Howell created the present performing edition. It was produced during his first half year visit to Germany. There he studied with the ‘dry’ and ‘desiccated’ composer and Schumann enthusiast Carl Reinecke (1824-1910). The Novellettes owe much to Schumann’s exemplars complete with appropriate mood-swings redolent of the German’s alter-egos, Eusebius and Florestan. The second Novellette opens with a Schubertian theme, soon to be replaced by something from Schumann, and enjoying an operatic gallop theme as the third subject. As an aside, the adjectives applied to poor Reinecke were soon to be heaped on Stanford – usually by people who knew little of his music.

The Suite for pianoforte, op.2 was penned around 1875 and featured four old time dances – Courante, Sarabande, Gigue and Gavotte. The movements are connected by some quasi-improvisatory passages. However it is not really a pastiche of Baroque music, more a representation of these traditional forms for the Victorian audience. Howell notes the incipient ‘Celtic’ tone of the pensive Sarabande and the semi-Wagnerian harmonies of the final Gavotte.

‘Fare Well’ was written only two days after the death of Field Marshall Horatio Herbert Kitchener, (1850-1916) sunk off the coat of Orkney aboard HMS Hampshire. The music alludes to the Westminster chimes (Kitchener had a house near the Abbey) and also to the Stanford’s own music including the heart-breaking melody of ‘Fare Well’ from the last of the Songs of the Fleet, op.117 which features in the central section. It may not be his greatest work for piano, but it is certainly a most moving tribute.

‘Six Song-Tunes’ presents a series of interesting and melodious little pieces well suited to the needs of the piano teacher. These may be simple but are never patronising. ‘Tunes’ presented include ‘Sleep’, ‘Sun’, ‘Marching’, ‘Swing’, ‘Dance’ and ‘Sea’.

I have had a copy of ‘A Toy Story’ for many years: I still play them on occasion and I am never disappointed in their simple charm. This delightful little collection of ‘Schumann-esque’ miniatures does indeed tell a story – from a child alone, the arrival of the post-man, opening the parcel to reveal a new toy, the toy broken, mended and finally enjoyed - child not alone. Not quite as bathetic as the story implies – clearly an adult was there to fix the toy.

These were some of Stanford’s contributions to satisfy the ever-increasing demand for pieces needed by the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music. They were composed around 1919-20.

Some years earlier (1894) Stanford had written Ten Dances (Old and New) for Young Players, op.58. I guess that even in the last decade of the nineteenth century few of these pieces were modern in the sense of the ‘latest thing’. Once again they had educational purposes in mind. They were dedicated to Stanford’s children Geraldine Mary (1883-1956) and Guy Desmond (1885-1953). Howell in his liner-notes submits that these pieces hover between the Grade IV and VI marks at today’s level. I like every one of these ten dances, but my favourites include the ‘Galop’, a dance that came from Germany in the middle 1800s, the ‘Morris Dance’ with its open air feel, and the hauntingly beautiful Parry-esque ‘Minuet’. As Charles Porte has remarked, ‘All these dances are fairly musical and characteristic’ of the composer. I shall be looking for a copy to sit on my piano.

The Toccata, op.3 is an early work. It was written in 1875 during Stanford’s second half-year stay in Germany. Howell notes the nod towards Schumann’s example of the form and suggests that the present work ‘must be a joyride for those who find the Schumann easy, slightly less for who don’t.’ It has also been influenced by Weber’s ‘moto perpetuo’ (the finale of the Piano Sonata No.1 which was deemed to be the ‘ne plus ultra of dexterity’. It was dedicated to the pianist Marie Krebs (1851-1900), whose ‘war horse’ was the Schumann Toccata in C, op.7.

Everyone who has toiled to learn the piano has had to contend with Sonatinas. Whether Clementi, Diabelli, Spindler, Kuhlau or Beethoven, they are an ever-present feature of teaching the classics from Grade I upwards. Some are good, some dreadful, many musical, some devoid of any artistic content but all are deemed good practice. Other Sonatinas have been produced by composers such as Ireland and Ravel. Why they did not call them Sonatas, I will never know. They are certainly not pieces designed to help the tyro with diverse aspects of technique.

Stanford’s examples fall between these two stools. Hardly likely to be used pedagogically, they do not really present recital standard material. Howell writes that Stanford may have been musing on sonatas by C.P.E. Bach and early Haydn. These interesting, sometimes wayward, examples of the genre are his reaction to this earlier music. The two examples, one in D minor the other in G major were composed in 1922. I did enjoy them and hope that one day I can peruse the scores. I guess that they may just about be in the gift of a Grade 6-er.

The only work on this double-CD set that has been recorded before (two movements of the Suite, op.2 were released by Howell on Sheva 019) is the massive Twenty-Four Preludes in all the keys, op.179. This were issued in 1998 by Peter Jacobs on Olympia OCD638.

In 1918 Stanford had composed his first set of 24 Preludes and Howell muses that ‘it is typical of [his] industry, that … he should become the first – maybe the only – British composer to have produced two such sets.’

These preludes follow the same key-scheme as Bach used in his celebrated 48. They were dedicated to Harold Samuel who was a concert pianist, teacher and exponent of Bach.

Christopher Howell ponders on whether these preludes ought to be played as a group, or whether it is acceptable to make a selection for recital purposes. He does not come to a final conclusion, but I think he considers that this set has considerable ‘continuity of thought between the one piece and the next’. I listened to these straight through: I certainly felt that the work is well-balanced, has much stylistic consistency and takes the listener on an emotional journey through a well-judged set of experiences, from the ‘Edwardian bombast’ of the opening Prelude in C major to the deeply funeral final Prelude ‘Addio’. This expedition includes references to baroque dance-forms such as a ‘musette’, a ‘sarabande’ and a ‘gavotte’.

It has been suggested that the first set of Twenty Four Preludes was Stanford’s ‘war diary’ whereas the present work is his ‘peace diary’.

As with the previous volume of Stanford’s piano music, the liner-notes are excellent. Christopher Howell has reprinted his important essay on ‘Stanford the Pianist’ which examines his early years as an accomplished player, his enjoyment of chamber music and accompanying songs. There is a succinct overview of the entire corpus of piano works before a detailed study of the pieces presented on these two CDs. I have relied heavily on these notes in making this review.

The quality of Christopher Howell’s playing is superb. I have remarked before that it would be easy to be condescending when playing the ‘educational music’ yet he brings considerable integrity to the pieces presented here, no matter their technical difficulty. I have no complaints about the excellent sound quality of these two discs.

While Stanford’s piano music tends to be ‘summative’ of the past, without ever descending to pastiche I concede that by and large it is ‘conservative’. He is happy to use tried and tested forms and pianistic devices, yet he always brings his personal honesty and imagination to whatever he writes. These pages reveal that there is considerable depth, romanticism, accommodation to classical models, inspiration for young pianists and exploration of the then emerging ‘Celtic Twilight’. Every piece presented here is worthy of our attention.

I understand that this major project will be fairly soon be completed with a third volume. So far, it has been a wonderful experience coming to terms with Stanford’s music for the piano. I look forward to this with considerable impatience.
John France



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