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Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Complete Music for Solo Piano - Volume 1
Six Waltzes (1876) [12:56]
Three Waltzes, Op.178 (publ. 1923) [10:14]
Six Characteristic Pieces, Op.132 (1912) [17:58]
Five Caprices, Op.136 (1913) [30:22]
Six Sketches (Primary) (1918) [4:29]
Six Sketches (Elementary) (1918) [8:07]
Three Fancies (1924) [7:34]
Five Irish Folk-Tunes, specially arranged (c.1922) [4:48]
Twenty-Four Preludes in all the keys, Op.163 (1918) [49:03]
Christopher Howell (piano)
rec. Griffa & Figli Studios, Milan, Italy, 2014
SHEVA SH115 [71:42 + 74:24]

This release inaugurates the first of three sets that will be devoted to Stanford’s piano music. Given that pianist Christopher Howell has chosen not to sequence the music chronologically he can construct reasonable sequences that can be listened to in their entirety or dipped into, as one chooses. Once fully assembled, however, the discs will form a cohesive and complete collection, in a way familiar from the competing sets of Stanford’s symphonic canon.

Much is here is making its first or first complete appearance on disc. Previous reviews have delved into matters discographic so I won’t reprise that information but will just give a brief pointer as to the highlights of this twofer.

Schumannesquely tying the Six Waltzes (1876) together – they’re all separately tracked – provides these youthful works with a sense of continuity that points up their delightful features, not least – fortuitously, perhaps – the opening B flat major. The sixth of the set, which prefaces a Coda, is buoyancy itself and is played here with commensurate brio and rhythmic exactitude. A more sophisticated view of the waltz comes in the Three Waltzes, Op.178 whose juxtaposition sheds a kind of reminiscent light on Stanford’s relationship with the idiom. Published in 1923 this set is more reflective and turbulent and in the last of the three, gently teasing.

Dating from 1912 The Six Characteristic Pieces, Op.132 are more nuanced. The opening In Modo Dorico is carved from the noblest and gravest of woods – it’s played with great distinction here – and the Roundel movement, an In Memoriam, is also powerfully moving. Written somewhat later, the Five Caprices, Op.136 bring the first disc to a rewarding close. Here turbulence and virtuosity are more pronounced, and the bardic Caoine, with its harp evocations lends the music a more personalised, strongly narrative sense. Then again the delightful Ballade, (No.4) in E flat major, with its superior voicings, is another elevated example of the genre. The five caprices last fully half an hour and are the most probing music on this disc.

The second CD includes two sequences of Sketches - pleasant pedagogic studies. They point to the varying impulses that led Stanford to compose a relatively extensive series of piano compositions. The Three Fancies evoke gentle Bachian elements as well as pert March themes. The Five Irish Folk-Tunes are his only arrangements of Irish folk tunes for solo piano and as such worthy of a sympathetic hearing, however brief they may be – and they are sometimes very brief; St Patrick’s Day lasts 28 seconds. The rest of the disc is given over to the one work that may well be familiar to British music adherents, the Preludes, Op.163, a sequence of 24 in all the keys. This set has been recorded by Peter Jacobs, coupled with the Op.132 set on Priory PRCD449, and the two recordings are to a large degree complementary. The Preludes are a particularly wide-ranging sequence of character pieces embracing playfulness and charm, March themes, brio, moments where Gluck seems to meet Rachmaninov, a Chopinesque funeral march, and bell allusions.

To all these diverse challenges Howell brings an absolute assurance of technique and tone – marking out each mood without imposing on them and proving a sure guide. Only two things in any way detract from his enterprise. Firstly, he has not been well served by his printers, as his important and comprehensive booklet notes are a little tricky to read, having been poorly printed. Second, although his Imperial Bösendorfer comes over well, the recording in the Milanese studio is a bit dry and cumulatively speaking somewhat tiring. My antidote is to listen to these pieces one set at a time. That way, you will enjoy the fine playing largely unimpeded by distractions of any kind.

Jonathan Woolf

Previous reviews: John France & Rob Barnett



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