Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Stanford: Complete Music for Solo Piano: Volume 1 - Review Part I

For listeners whose appreciation of Charles Villiers
Stanford does not extend beyond ‘choirs and places where they sing’ it may come as a surprise to find out that he composed a vast catalogue of music – both sacred and secular. This includes 11 operas, seven fine symphonies, many oratorios and cantatas, a number of concerted works, songs and part-songs, chamber music and arrangements of Irish folk tunes. Nevertheless, for enthusiasts of the whole range of Stanford’s music it may come as a revelation to read Howell’s statement that Stanford ‘had amassed by the end of [his life] a corpus [of piano music] equal to, or greater than such near contemporaries as Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Grieg or Dvorak. Personally, I knew he had written a great deal for the instrument, but never guessed quite so much...
Unfortunately, the critical study and reception of Stanford’s piano works have been hampered by Fuller-Maitland who stated that ‘the piano works of… [Stanford and Parry] need not detain us long‟ (Fuller-Maitland, J.A., The Music of Parry and Stanford, an Essay in Comparative Criticism, Cambridge: W. Heffer & Sons, Ltd. 1934). I guess that there are reasons why Stanford’s piano music (as well as much of the rest of his works) has suffered neglect. One explanation being the ‘conservative’ sound world that made use of ‘outdated’ forms and a relatively traditional pallet of musical devices and harmonies. We must never forget that in France, Debussy was discovering a whole new sound-world at a time when Stanford was writing sub-Brahms and Schumann. Even in the United Kingdom composers such as William Baines, Cyril Scott and John Ireland were responding to the influences of Debussy, Scriabin and even jazz.  Yet now, we can (hopefully) appreciate music at more levels that simply being ‘progressive’ or ‘modern’. Stanford offers thoughtfulness, classical structure, and exemplary technique. He is also a romantic at heart who is infused with the spirituality, passion and the wit of Ireland. It makes for a potent and satisfying mixture. 

Stanford’s piano music has been largely ignored by pianists, concert promoters and record companies. In my vinyl collection I still have John Parry’s performance of the Three Rhapsodies coupled with Hubert Parry’s charming Shulbrede Tunes. This was issued on the Pearl label in 1978 (SHE546). Nearly twenty years, later Peter Jacobs played both sets of Preludes and the ‘Dante’ Rhapsodies on the Priory and Olympia record labels. (PRCD449 & Olympia 638). Another ten years were to elapse before the present pianist released Land of Sunset Glories. (Sheva 019). This was a selection of Stanford’s piano music culled from his entire catalogue.
Apart from various editions of the Irish Dances, op.89 there has been nothing else on CD. One honourable exception to this has been the sterling efforts of Philip Sear on YouTube who has recorded a few of Stanford’s pieces along with a huge range of other rare, but often stunning, music.

I do not want to examine each of these works in detail: it would take too many words and would only repeat what Christopher Howell has written in the liner notes. However, I do want to make some suggestions as to how to listen to this double CD set.
I would recommend taking each piece or group of pieces together, but not through-listening to the entire CD.  For the Twenty-Four Preludes, it is probably better to listen to them half a dozen at a time. It is unlikely that Stanford would have wished them all to be taken at a single sitting.
There is a wide range of forms and titles presented here. There is also a considerable chronological spread, with the earliest piece being the Six Waltzes (1876) and the latest being the ‘Three Fancies’ which were published some 48 years later in 1924, the year of the composer’s death. There is also a disparity of technical demands with two sets of the Associated Board ‘Six Sketches’ (Primary) and (Elementary) which were written in 1918 complimenting the challenging ‘Five Caprices’ and the Preludes, op.163.

I started my exploration with the two sets of ‘Six Sketches’ which were written for aspiring pianists. I have had a copy in my library for many years and often play them. Their simplicity is their charm.  The ‘Primary’ set have some ‘learned’ titles such as Gavotte, Scherzo, Minuet as well as something a wee bit more playful such as ‘Morris-Dance’, ‘Lullaby’ and ‘The Hunt on the Hobby Horse’. The second set has imaginative titles: ‘The Doll’s Minuet’, ‘The Bogey-Man’ and ‘Hop-Jig’. All twelve are straightforward to play, but here and there a little tripwire is found to upset the unwary or over-confident. That is why the Associated Board has found (and still finds) these sketches useful for examination purposes. I often wish that recitalists would include the odd ‘didactic’ piece in their programmes: it is enlightening to hear pieces that I have plonked away at for years played properly! 
To be continued...

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