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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 [4:47], No.5 Toccata [4:09]
Night Thoughts, op.148 (1917) [34:17]
Ballade, op.170 (c.1919) [7:59]
Two Fugues (1922/3): No.1 C minor [2:00] No.2 B minor [2:50]
Four Irish Dances, op.89 (1903) [15:56]
Scènes de Ballet, op.150 (1917) [24:15]
March (1860) [1:48]
Un Fleur de Mai: Romance (c.1864) [4:20]
Three Nocturnes, op184, (1921) No.2 B flat major [7:01] No.3 F major [7:47] (note: No.1 is missing)
Toccata in C major (1919) [4:35]
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]

My first experience of Stanford’s piano music came in the form of his two sets of twenty four preludes expertly played by Peter Jacobs, one on Priory (PRCD 449) and one on the much lamented Olympia label (OCD 638). Whilst I have often played these two discs and enjoyed them immensely, I have never got around to enlarging my catalogue of his piano music until now. I am glad I now have the chance to do just that, and indeed listen to his complete piano music, something I thought unlikely in the 1990s when Jacobs made his recordings. For this we must be eternally grateful to Christopher Howell, not just for performing the music, many receiving their premiere recordings, but also for collating, editing, researching and composing the detailed copious notes; obviously a real labour of love (reviews of Volume 1 and Volume 2).
I have always liked Stanford's music and this despite that fact that he never really set the musical world alight. He had the capability to compose well crafted and interesting music, yet it is the Irish ditties that you remember. Take his songs for instance. He is capable of such masterpieces as Heraclitus, yet it is Trottin’ to the Fair that you remember. The same can be said of his piano music. Take this set: the second disc ends with the Three (Dante) Rhapsodies, one of the most ambitious and technical of his piano pieces. They are deeply rooted in the great German piano tradition exemplified by Brahms, but it is the Four Irish Dances that end CD1 that stick in your brain.

However, this set does contains some fine music, music that proves Stanford an assiduous and more than capable composer of piano music. It is a shame that he didn’t progress beyond the two Sonatinas, present on volume two (SH 125), and compose a fully-fledged Sonata to rival those magnificent ones he composed for the organ. It has been suggested that the Three (Dante) Rhapsodies are the nearest he ever got to composing an authentic sonata. This is an interesting work and I find myself strongly disagreeing with Charles Porte’s description of them as “rather dull”. They are in fact quite dramatic in nature. One only has to listen to the first, Francesca, to hear this. This sense of drama is palpable in the following two Rhapsodies, although I would say that they need to be listened to on more than one occasion to get the best from them. Having listened to them and compared them with Peter Jacobs’ Olympia recording, I must say that I find Jacobs a little more insightful than Howell. Howell does however offer a fine recording of these and indeed of all the pieces offered here.

There is a good range of piano pieces presented on this two disc set; perhaps the most diverse of the three. The selection extends from the salon to the more dramatic and with a fair sprinkling of Irish nationalism thrown in for good measure. It's a fine and recommendable release.

Stuart Sillitoe

Previous reviews: John France ~ Jonathan Woolf



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