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Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924) Complete Music for Solo Piano - Volume 1
Six Waltzes (1876) [12:56] (first recording)
Three Waltzes Op. 178 (1920) [10:14] (first complete recording)
Six Characteristic Pieces Op. 132 (1912) [17:58]
Five Caprices Op. 136 (1913) [30:22]
Six Sketches (Primary) (publ. 1918) [4:29] (first complete recording)
Six Sketches (Elementary) (publ. 1918) [8:07] (first recording)
Three Fancies (publ. 1924) [7:34] (first recording)
Five Irish folk-tunes (publ. 1922) [4:48] (first recording)
Twenty-Four Preludes in all the Keys Op. 163 (1918) [49:03]
Christopher Howell (piano)
rec. Griffa & Figli Studios, Milan, 14 January, 14 March, 6 May, 9 September 2014 SHEVA COLLECTION SH115 [71:42 + 74:24]
While Stanford wrote piano music throughout his career, much of his output for the instrument dates from the last twenty years of his life during which he made up for lost time. While there are a number of sets of teaching pieces and folk-song arrangements, the majority is concert music, much of it “character pieces” but also including two sets of preludes comprising all the keys. Christopher Howell, who has already given us several recordings of music by Stanford including his complete music for violin and piano (link 1, link 2) here begins a survey of the composer’s complete music for piano solo. This will eventually comprise three sets of two discs each. In the interests of disclosure I should point out that in addition to being a composer, organist and pianist, Mr. Howell is a long-time contributor to MusicWeb-International (see 2008 article on Stanford). That said, this is a thrilling set for those who admire Stanford and English piano music of one hundred years ago.
Howell starts off these discs with an imaginative juxtaposition of waltzes from the beginning and end of Stanford’s career. We first hear a set of six unpublished waltzes (plus a coda) from 1876 when Stanford wasn’t even twenty four years old, followed by a group of three waltzes from his late sixties. The early set demonstrates influences, as might be expected, of Chopin and Brahms, but also shows Stanford’s tendency to link individual pieces in a group through repetition of thematic material. Of these six the fifth is probably the most attractive. It is interesting to note that no fewer than three are in the key of B flat major. The 1920 waltzes are more in the nature of a parody of the form, but also betray an underlying uneasiness typical of this difficult period in the composer’s life.
The Six Characteristic Pieces and the Five Caprices date from earlier, happier days. The In Modo Dorico that opens the Six Characteristic Pieces must have had a personal meaning for Stanford. He arranged it later for organ and it forms the main motif of his 1919 opera The Travelling Companion. It is quite mystical and also provides the material for the succeeding two Characteristic Pieces. The fourth, Roundel, was written (a year late) for Schumann’s centennial and gently evokes the spirit if not the letter of Schumann’s shorter piano works, with a fair amount of sadness at the end. The fifth piece, Romance, is charming and the final Toccata is extremely effective. The Five Caprices of Op. 136 are more substantial than the term “caprice” implies and indeed the set is a group of pieces of varying types like the Six Characteristic Pieces. Again there are thematic links within the group. This begins with an attractive march-like piece followed by an Irish lament with scale passages accompanied by harp-like effects. It is a shame Stanford never orchestrated it. The third of the group is light-hearted but not without some depth while the fourth shows deft use of variation-technique. To conclude we have another waltz and it proves an appropriate envoi. These works are in some ways the highlight of these discs as they show Stanford’s imagination and great technical ability in perfect equilibrium.
Stanford is well-known for his settings of Irish folk-songs for voice and piano. On CD 2 we have his only Irish Folk Song settings for piano solo along with two sets of teaching pieces and the Three Fancies published in 1924, the year of Stanford’s death. The teaching pieces are charming if not very consequential. The folk-song settings were written for children’s publications but belong more with the vocal settings of Irish folk-songs. Somewhere in between are the Three Fancies. While written as children’s pieces they show more individuality as well as more of the composer’s humorous side than most of other the music on these discs.
Stanford’s 24 Preludes Op. 163 also started as a teaching project but quickly grew into something more. Howell describes them as Stanford’s “war diary” and many of the minor key preludes end in one of a small group of repeated cadential formulae that, over the course of the work, produce a sense of grief and futility. Even among the major key preludes some end abruptly or betray the underlying uneasiness mentioned above in the Three Waltzes. The first eight preludes are again linked thematically and, of these, the first three show the composer’s ingenuity in creating music that contains great emotional variety. The remaining five are similarly ingenious with several seeming to stop in mid-course before pressing on again, perhaps like a soldier marching. The second set of eight preludes includes two simple pieces with nineteenth century-style titles, Humoresque and In the Woods. The preludes that surround them are something else: either dying away softly or ending abruptly and the 16th (G-minor) is almost a funeral march, with a central section seemingly reminiscent of better days. While numbers 17 and 18 are, respectively, resolute and care-free, the 19th prelude (in A-major) begins as a slow, folkish, tune and, through increasing time values, drags more and more heavily, as if the soldiers from the earlier preludes were having even more difficulty marching. By contrast No. 21, Carillons (B flat major - see above) is lively and cheerful, certainly one of the most attractive of the twenty-four. With the next prelude we have another funeral march, this one In Memoriam M.G., for Michael Gray (son of the composer Alan Gray) who was killed in August 1918. In this prelude Stanford’s agitation is palpable and not soon forgotten. The next to last prelude En Rondeau is cheerful and the concluding B minor prelude starts out brightly but at the end we are left with uncertainty.
As mentioned above Christopher Howell is no stranger to the music of Stanford. On these discs his touch is light and he shows a greater sense of enjoyment than others might find in these pieces. At the same time he can bring out the pathos in the sadder Preludes. This is the result of his obviously deep thought about the music of Stanford as well as knowledge of the composer’s entire output. Most admirable is his ability to maintain pace and conception among the varying pieces in a cycle. While one can quibble with some of the tempi chosen there is not much else to criticize. In addition the notes to these discs are highly informative and there is the added factor of many of these pieces having been previously unrecorded. We greatly look forward to Vols. 2 and 3 of the complete set.