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John STANLEY (1713-1786)
Organ Concerto in E, Op.10 No.1 [8:24]
Organ Concerto in D, Op.10 No.2 [7:48]
Organ Concerto in B flat, Op.10 No.3 [9:05]
Organ Concerto in C minor, Op.10 No.4 [11:45]
Organ Concerto in A, Op.10 No.5 [6:58]
Organ Concerto in C, Op.10 No.6 [8:27]
Gerald Gifford (organ)
Northern Sinfonia Orchestra
rec. 1983 Hexham Abbey, Northumberland CRD 3365 [53:50]
It is widely held that Handel conceived the organ concerto as a means of attracting audiences to his annual oratorio presentations in London. Renowned as a virtuoso organist, he interpolated organ concertos into the intervals as a means of enticing those, for whom the idea of an oratorio was just too novel. When John Stanley, the blind London organist, whom Handel had highly respected both as an organist and a composer, took over the directorship of the annual oratorio season at Covent Garden after Handel’s death, he not only oversaw performances of Handel’s oratorios, but wrote a couple of his own. These were not successful, but it seems he was rather more successful in presenting his own organ concertos as intermission-fillers during the Covent Garden season, and in 1775 he published them as a set of six. (As with Handel, another set was published, but these were arrangements of earlier works, presumably made to meet a market demand for the new-fangled genre of keyboard concerto; at the same time as Stanley was producing his organ concertos, J C Bach had introduced the piano concerto to London and Stanley’s organ concertos were published as for “Organ, Harpsichord or Forte-piano”.) They were Stanley’s last published works.
For reasons, which have always escaped me, not only are Stanley’s Op.10 concertos very rarely performed but, apart from a recording released in 2004 on the Celestial Harmonies label, in which organist Franz Lehrndorfer arranged them as solo organ works, Gerald Gifford is the only organist to have committed them all to disc in their original guise as concertos for organ and strings.
As with the Handel concertos, many of the slow movements would have been solos, improvised by the organist alone, and Gifford has not attempted to insert these, but left the concertos mostly in two-movement form. The wisdom of doing this is evident, when one observes how stylistically distinct each of the concertos are. Whether this was because they were written at different times during the composer’s career or because, unlike Handel, he was conscious of their context within the musical idiom of the relevant oratorio, the fact remains that there is an astonishing variety of styles here, with only the B flat Concerto easily confused with Handel’s exercises in the genre. The graceful fluency of the C minor Concerto with its flowing scale passages is firmly in the vein of his well-known organ voluntaries, which he published in three sets of 10 each, while the C major Concerto has an almost Mozartean freshness of invention, not least in its second movement rondeau which could quite easily be taken as a model for the witty court music of The Marriage of Figaro.
I originally possessed this recording in its LP version and this sparkling CD transfer gives a refreshingly crisp edge to what was already a first-rate recording, with only a small fall in pitch marring the final track on the disc. The obvious immediacy of the CD sound is all to the good, but it does throw up a niggling doubt about the appropriateness of the Hexham Abbey organ in such lightly-scored music. With the Abbey's spacious acoustic rather more evident on CD, it seems in danger of sounding just too opulent. However, the nimble Gifford and the ever-refined Northern Sinfonia ensure that everything has considerable transparency.
How much Gifford was involved in the direction of these performances is not clear, but it seems unlikely that from the organ console of Hexham Abbey he would have been realistically able to keep such a tight rein over the orchestra as is evident in performances which are not only crisp and neat, but maintain absolute security of ensemble. Possibly the orchestra’s leader, Barry Wilde had rather more to do with this than the booklet implies.