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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), Intermezzo [4:47] and Toccata [4:09]
Night Thoughts, Op.148 (1917) [34:17]
Ballade, Op.170 (1919) [7:59]
Two Fugues (1922): C minor [2:00]: B minor [2:50]
Four Irish Dances, Op.89 (1903) [15:56]
Scènes de Ballet, Op.150 (1917) [24:15]
March (1860) [1:48]
Une Fleur de Mai – Romance (1864) [4:20]
Three Nocturnes (1921) No.2 B flat major [7:01]: No.3 F major [7:47]
Toccata in C major (1919) [4:35]
Three [Dante] Rhapsodies, Op.92 (1904) [26:00]
Christopher Howell (piano)
rec. October 2013, May and September 2014, October 2015, February 2016, studios of Griffa & Figli s.r.l., Milan
SHEVA SH160 [72:04 + 75:53]

This is the third and final volume of Christopher Howell’s exploration of Stanford’s Complete Works for solo piano. It has been a most enjoyable voyage and Howell has proved a consistently rewarding interpreter, neither inflating the smaller genre pieces nor downplaying Stanford’s more introspective and characterful works. There are examples of both in this final twofer.

The charming Intermezzo of the Six Concert Pieces make a good foil for the more necessarily insistent Toccata companion. Rather more expansive is Night Thoughts, a set of six with some Rachmaninovian chording in the Ballade, grit being provided in the Scherzo marziale whilst A Lament serves up rolled chords that in their gravity announce a kind of harp ballad. As Howell notes there is something quasi impressionist about the Ballade, Op.170, completed c.1919 and it flows warmly. The two fugues were dedicated to the leading British interpreter of Bach at the time, Harold Samuel. The first disc ends with the set of Four Irish Dances. This is the first recording of the original piano version. I mentioned the third of the set, the Leprechaun’s Dance, in the context of my review of Stanford’s Violin and Piano music (review) and here it’s Howell’s way with the Reel that really catches the ear.

The second disc opens with the six-movement 24-minute Scènes de Ballet. Each of these little pieces, whether Polka, Pas de deux, Mazurka or whatever has sufficient individuality to vest life to what might seem superficially an exercise in generic writing. However there sounds something saucily satiric going on in places, where Stanford seems to be pulling Rosenkavalier’s leg. A mopping up operation explains the otherwise very youthful squibs that are the March and Une Fleur de Mai-Romance. The two surviving Nocturnes of the three Nocturne set, Op.184 are a cut above; No.3 in particular has a melancholic profile that leads on to considerable storminess. As with several of these pieces the Toccata in C major is heard in Howell’s performing edition. He has perhaps wisely programmed the best for last. This is the Three [Dante] Rhapsodies, Op.92 written in 1904, dedicated to Percy Grainger and published the following year by Houghton & Co. These details come from the scrupulously detailed booklet notes, which are yet again a veritable mine of information. The piece takes in powerful descriptive narrative with wind-like arpeggios, lamenting phrases, romantic reverie, dappled treble innocence, Brahmsian brio at 5:35 in the last piece and a curious seeming-reminiscence of Saint-Saëns’s Organ Symphony at one point. It’s well worth reading the notes to learn more about the inspiration for this excellent piece. In truth, it dwarfs in musical distinction everything else in the two discs.

The recordings were made over a period between 2013 and 2016. The sound quality, as has been the case throughout the series, is rather confined and flat. It doesn’t bring out much colour or depth but it doesn’t manage to impede Christopher Howell’s sensitive pianism. Admirers of Stanford’s piano music now have a set of discs that will tell them all they need to know about it, and some more besides.

Jonathan Woolf

Previous review: John France



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