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Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Complete Music for Solo Piano - Volume 3
Six Concert Pieces, op.42, Book 2 (1894) No.4 Intermezzo [04:47], No.5 Toccata [04:09]
Night Thoughts, op.148 (1917) [34:17]
Ballade, op.170 (c.1919) [07:59]
Two Fugues (1922/3): No.1 C minor [02:00] No.2 B minor [02:50]
Four Irish Dances, op.89 (1903) [15:56]
Scènes de Ballet, op.150 (1917) [24:15]
March (1860) [01:48]
Un Fleur de Mai: Romance (c.1864) [04:20]
Three Nocturnes, op184, (1921) No.2 B flat major [07:01] No.3 F major [07:47] n.b. No.1 is missing
Toccata in C major (1919) [04:35]
Three Dante Rhapsodies, op.92 (1904) [26:00]
Christopher Howell (piano)
rec. Studios of Griffa and Figli, Milan, Italy, 2013-2016.
SHEVA SH160 [72:04+75:53]

This two-CD set is the final instalment of a large project. In 2009, Christopher Howell gave us a sampler of Stanford’s piano music in his Land of Sunset Glories. In 2015, the first and second volumes of the present ‘complete’ piano works appeared on the market. Every piece that is extant has been recorded. Those works issued on the 2009 album have been recorded anew in their due place for ‘consistency of acoustic.’

A great place to begin an exploration of this final instalment of the Complete Works for Solo Piano by Sir Charles Villiers Stanford is the beautiful Ballade, Op.170. This is a late work written in the immediate aftermath of the First World War. Yet there is no angst or obvious reaction to the horror of that cataclysmic event. There is no clue as to what the story implied by the title may be. Suffice to say, it does not matter. The idea of the form is to contrast both dramatic and poetic content. Chopin was probably the first to develop this title (four examples) and it was taken up by Brahms and Liszt. What Stanford’s contribution lacks in powerful drama is made up by exquisite lyricism and thoughtful pianistic figurations. There is an Irish mood to much of the work’s progress, which is also characterised by a sense of freedom and improvisation. I guess this Ballad has more to do with love than battle. One of my favourite pieces of Stanford’s piano music.

Christopher Howell has provided information of the lost piano music. This includes the Piano Sonata dating from 1885. The first book of Six Concert Pieces has also disappeared. The survivors of the Six Concert Pieces are the Intermezzo and the Toccata. Howell notes that the final piece (No.6) of Op.42 Book 2 is not missing, it is included in the manuscript. The piece was recycled with only minimal tidying up (scarcely perceptible to the ear) as no.5 of Night Thoughts op.148. Howell deemed it unnecessary to record it twice over, but made the point of putting Opp. 42 and 148 on the same CD, so anyone who wishes can listen to the three surviving pieces of Op.42 together.

The Concert Pieces were completed in 1894 and dedicated to the pianist Fanny Davies. They were never published in Stanford’s lifetime and were probably not played by Davies. The Intermezzo is particularly attractive, with a decidedly contemplative mood. On the other hand, the ‘Toccata’ is a tour de force that is fleet of foot. It is more ‘will o’ the wisp’ than Widor!

The suite Night Thoughts op.148 is the longest collection of pieces on this CD, lasting more than half an hour. They were completed in 1917. The notes imply that many of these numbers were composed much earlier. There is a huge disparity of style which leads to a lack of coherence in this Suite. In fact, I guess it is better to regard this as a collection that can be played as standalone pieces. The Nocturne has a dreamy opening with a troubled march-like middle section. I enjoyed the Ballade movement: once again Stanford seems to be telling a tale of love rather than war. It is characterised by serenity and thoughtfulness. Charles Porte considers that the Scherzo is the least pianistic of these works, being ‘orchestral in character.’ Yet the listener will enjoy the jaunty and spirited Irish mood of this piece. It is followed by the Elgarian ‘A Soliloquy’ which is dreamy and introspective. The penultimate piece is a straightforward Mazurka, which ticks all the boxes for a lively, but in this case, slightly restrained, dance. It has a memorable main theme. Interestingly, the Mazurka was once popular in County Donegal. We are still in Ireland for the Lament. Of all these pieces, it is probably the one that strikes a note of sorrow commensurate with then-current events of Europe at war. Though the Suite does not work as an integrated whole, I enjoyed every single piece.

The Two Fugues (1922/3) are late works. They were written as a Christmas/New Year greeting to the pianist/composer Harold Samuel (1879-1937), who had once been a student of Stanford. As I understand, Samuel never performed these publicly, but may have played them at home. The first documented performance was by Christopher Howell at the Villa Bossi, Bodio Lomnago, Varese in Italy on 1 February 2015. Howell states that they are ‘alternative versions’ of the second and third of the Three Preludes and Fugues for organ, Op.193 (1922). They are not transcriptions. The second fugue in B minor, which is a fuga alla giga: it could be described as an Irish Fugue. These fugues are not pastiche Bach (Samuel was a highly-regarded exponent of Bach’s music) but are certainly good examples of the genre.

I love the Irish Dances, Op.89. As the title implies, the Irish spirit is naturally very pronounced. There are four: March, Jig, Slow Dance, The Leprechaun’s Dance and a concluding Reel. The liner notes explain their complex publication history, with versions for orchestra (surely a desideratum for a new recording) and for violin and piano. Furthermore, the Irish Dances were later dished up by Percy Grainger in ‘a sparkling, show-off sort of way.’ There are several versions of Grainger’s ‘souped up’ dances on the market, so it is good that Howell has chosen to record the original Stanford incarnation. There is a restraint and subtlety about these that is denied in Grainger’s deliberately ‘over the top’ version.

Ballet is one of the few genres that Charles Villiers Stanford did not contribute to. However, the Scènes de Ballet, Op.150 dating from 1917 give the listener some clue as to what he may have come up with. Yet not is all that it seems. The score includes a Tempo di Polka, a Pas de Deux, a Valse Chromatique, a Pas de Fascination, a Mazurka and concluding with a Tourbillon. This latter could appear to represent a Scottish country dance, although Francois Couperin also made use of the dance in one of his harpsichord suites. The word is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as being a ‘whirlwind, whirling storm.’ The piece is marked to be played Tempo di Galop. Howell reminded me that there are examples of this title composed by Joseph Lanner and Joseph Siegmund Bachman which exploit this galloping mood. Stanford recorded in his Pages from an Unwritten Diary that he heard dances played by Strauss and Lanner during his student years in Germany. I am not sure that Stanford precisely captures the mood of any exemplar.

Scènes de Ballet had been used as a title by several composers, including Stanford’s friend Alexander Glazunov, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Igor Stravinsky. At this time, ‘the spirit of parody’ was a prominent feature in much music. Howell has further suggested the Suite is an exploration of light music of the kind that Stanford’s one-time pupil Coleridge-Taylor may have come up with. To this end, he wittily suggests that this Scene du Ballet could also have been given the Ravelian title Le Tombeau de Coleridge Taylor such is the stylistic referencing in this music. This is a delightful score, that showcases enjoyable music. Yet, there is sometimes a harder harmonic edge to these pieces implying that Stanford was responding to Continental developments in musical style. After all, it was composed four years after Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring!

One of the earliest numbers is the short March dating from 1860 when the composer had reached the grand old age of eight years. Hardly a masterpiece, but is worth hearing simply because, anecdotally, it was the Stanford’s Opus 1. The work was supposedly performed during Puss in Boots at the Theatre Royal in Dublin. Howell suggests that the young composer may well have been inspired by Meyerbeer’s March from Le Prophète. Whatever the facts and opinions, it is good to have such an early piece from Stanford on CD. The Romance – Un Fleur de Mai was composed some four years later, circa 1864. This is a quaint little piece that owes much to Balfe and possibly John Field. Certainly, this little flower was spotted in Ireland and not France. What it lacks in structure, it makes up in charm.

The Three Nocturnes were completed in 1921. Unfortunately, the first is missing. This title is typically given to short character pieces written for piano in a quiet and lyrical style. It was introduced by the Irish composer John Field and perfected by Chopin. Stanford’s night pieces echo the mood of his native land. Howell has noted that they both have a ‘disjointed feel, almost like [a] mosaic’. Certainly, they show the composer looking towards Debussy rather than Chopin. The first performance of these two Nocturnes was given by the present pianist at the Villa Bossi, Bodio Lomnago, Varese in Italy. It is incredible that such imaginative and beautiful pieces had to wait so long to be heard.

The vibrant Toccata in C major dates from just after the Great War. It is a strong work that has echoes of Brahms and Richard Strauss’ Burlesque, although Howell points out that Stanford would not have relished the latter comparison.

The final three pieces on this CD are the Three Dante Rhapsodies, op.92, which were written in 1904. J.A. Fuller-Maitland defines these pieces as ‘the most ambitious of Stanford’s pianoforte compositions’ but are also ‘strangely lacking in inspiration.’ Charles Porte considers that despite the Dante theme ‘they are rather dull as musical works.’

I feel that what we have here is the nearest thing to a piano sonata to survive from Stanford’s pen. Certainly, I find interest, strength, beauty and technical prowess at every turn of these three beautiful pieces. I disagree with Fuller-Maitland that the first two movements, Francesca and Beatrice, do not move the listener: I think they are gorgeous expressions of love and loss. Francesca majors on that lady’s illicit love affair with Paolo, for which she remained unrepentant. I always associate Beatrice with the stunning painting by Henry Holliday (one of my all-time favourites) in the Liverpool Walker Art Gallery. Stanford’s music is concurrently romantic, melancholy and strangely positive. The final piece is Capaneo who, according to Dante, is found amongst the ‘blasphemers’ in the ‘seventh circle of hell’ under fire from Zeus’ thunderbolts because he dared to defy the gods. Interestingly, the closing pages are signed nobilmente a term normally associated with Edward Elgar. It is a strong, virile piece that may not rise to the heights of inspiration, but is nevertheless effective and convincing. The Three Rhapsodies were dedicated to Percy Grainger.

It seems superfluous to praise Christopher Howell’s liner notes for this CD. He is always meticulous in his scholarship and has a huge ability to communicate his passion for music. The text is supported by endnotes. Taking all three volumes together, these notes present an almost dissertation-length study of Stanford’s piano music. Added to this, are detailed catalogue entries of each work in the track-listings, an introduction to Stanford the Pianist and an overview of the piano music in general. A short biography of Christopher Howell is included.

I enjoyed every piece on these two CDs. They are played with huge skill and obvious enthusiasm. The sound recording, which is excellent, adds enormously to the value of this music. The entire package, three volumes, six CDs, the essential liner notes, the historical research, the preparation of scores and other material has been a major triumph. It is a massive contribution to the recorded legacy of one of the British Isles’ greatest composers. Everything on this present volume and the entire cycle in general, dispels the myth that Charles Villiers Stanford wrote music that was ‘as dry as dust.’

John France

 

 




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