Friday, 30 December 2011

My Five Discoveries (or Rediscoveries of 2011 (Part 2)

This is the second part of my Five Discoveries (or Rediscoveries) of 2011. The Number 2 slot is for a British Symphony that has lain dormant for nearly as long as I have been alive. It is a treasure. And the Number 1 piece is the stunning Piano Quartet No.2 by Charles Villiers Stanford. 

Carlo Martelli’s Symphony. Op.4 (1955-56)
Apart from a few pieces of ‘light’ music such as Persiflage and the Jubilee March, I have never heard any significant work by Carlo Martelli. This present Symphony is certainly an eye-opener and is in a totally different league to these more ephemeral pieces – at least from the point of view emotional power, concentration and architecture. 
There are four things that need to be said about this excellent Symphony. Firstly, although it may not be the greatest example of the genre from its era, it is a fine, important work that is both challenging and interesting and compares favourably to symphonies by Frankel, Searle and Gardner. Secondly, one needs to bear in mind that the composer was only 19 years old and was still studying at the Royal College of Music. Although there is nothing precocious about this music, it is a superb early work that any composer would and should be immensely proud of. There is much here that is original, in spite of some nods to Shostakovich and other contemporary figures. Thirdly, the quality of the instrumentation shows great skill and imagination – much of the score is unsettling but the use of colour and texture is satisfying. And finally, it is hard to believe that a work which showed such promise has been virtually ignored for over half a century. I know that this has affected many symphonies by British composers from this era, but in Martelli’s case it is especially unfortunate as the work was initially widely fêted and was then subsequently forgotten. 

Charles Villiers Stanford Piano Quartet No.2 n C minor, Op.133
The top-line comment for the Piano Quartet No. 2 in C minor, Op. 133 is Wow! We have the Stanford (and many other composers) scholar Jeremy Dibble to thank for editing the manuscript of this work and producing a performing edition. It was given its first modern performance at the Corbridge Festival, Northumberland, in August 2010 by the Gould Trio. The liner notes suggest that the work probably only received a single contemporary performance by members of the Wesseley Quartet and the pianist Johanne Stockmarr at the Bechstein Hall (now the Wigmore Hall) on 14 March 1914. It is almost unbelievable that a work which is so manifestly impressive has been unheard for over ninety years. 
The work is a product of Stanford’s time of political involvement with the anti-Home Rule movement in Ireland and of his support for Edward Carson in Ulster. Although there is not a political programme to this music, the seriousness and depth of the argument can be compared to the great Irish Rhapsody No. 4 with its wide emotional sweep from grandeur and boldness to tenderness. That Rhapsody was prefaced by the following lines: - ‘Land of Song!’ said the warrior-bard, ‘Tho’ all the world betrays thee, One sword at least thy rights shall guard, One faithful harp shall praise thee!’  and carries the subtitle The Fisherman of Loch Neagh and what he saw. 
The Piano Quartet is written in strong contrasting movements. The opening of the work is simply stunning – two contrasting themes present a balance between a restive mood and one of open-hearted generosity, and, rare for this work, warmth. This is one of the finest ‘first movements’ that I have heard from Stanford’s pen. It has been well summed-up by Jeremy Dibble as being a display of ‘passionate gravity’. 
I find the slow movement deeply moving and often troubling. The liner notes point out that this music moves between 3/8 and 5/8 time creating an unsettling mood. There is much here that nods to Irish music, without an actual folk tune being utilised. However there is nothing pastoral or bucolic about this movement, nor is it in any way heart-easing or encouraging. 
The ‘scherzo’ is to my mind scary. There is much happening in this movement that pushes the emotional content beyond most of what Stanford has previously written. It is not achieved by dissonance but by rhythm and a sense of propulsion that seems almost inhuman. However the trio section does restore the equilibrium a little.  
The last movement, an allegro, which as Jeremy Dibble points out, ‘exudes an air of confidence’ with its large and generously proportioned main theme. This movement is to a certain extent cyclic with references to the slow movement. The most magical part of the work is a reminisce of the opening of the first movement in a moving ‘tranquillo’ shortly before the coda and the positive conclusion. 
Whatever one’s political views about the ‘Home-Rule’ movement and Edward Carson’s opposition to it, there is no doubt that it was a time of great stress and worry for all people living in Ireland. It was a period when various private armies began to line up against each other, with tragic result that rolled on into the future. The present Piano Quartet is the Dublin-born Stanford’s expression of the fears, doubts and hopes of many Irishmen, most especially Ulstermen. As such, it is supremely successful: to my mind it is a major masterpiece of the chamber music repertoire. 
NAXOS 8.572452
With thanks to MusicWeb International where these reviews were first published.

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