Saturday, 5 September 2015

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

Many years ago I inherited a number of editions of The Children’s Music Portfolio which was a serial edited by Thomas Dunhill around 1922. Amongst the songs and piano pieces by a variety British and continental composers was a selection of Irish Folk Tunes arranged by Stanford. I recall that I struggled to play them effectively. Howell gives a reason: Stanford provided a relatively involved and constantly changing accompaniment to the simple tune which became a little tricky to execute for young or unpractised fingers.  They include ‘The Minstrel Boy’, ‘St Patrick’s Day’ and ‘The Meeting of the Waters’. These are the only arrangements of Irish tunes for piano (many folk-songs were arranged) that Stanford made. I loved hearing these miniatures played with considerable sensitivity here.

The ‘Three Fancies’ are new to me. They were issued in the last year of the composer’s life. These are more complex than the Sketches, although they were also written for students. Howell suggests they are at about Grade 5. I particularly like the opening ‘Fancy’ which could be entitled ‘Bach walks down Grafton Street’ with its reel-infused ‘invention’.

The first CD opens with Six Waltzes which were composed when Stanford was 24 years old. They are the earliest pieces on this CD. All six waltzes are connected by a bridge passage and there is a final coda. These are striking pieces that are clearly derivative of Brahms. Howell notes that there are also ‘echoes’ of Dvorak in these pages, in spite of the fact that it is unlikely that Stanford would have been aware of the Bohemian’s music.  

Many years later Stanford revisited the form with his Three Waltzes, op.178.  They were published in 1923, but had probably been composed some three years earlier.  They are evocative reminiscences of an earlier age. Look out for allusions to Beethoven’s ‘Fur Elise’ in the opening number. Waltz No.2 is full of energy and exuberance. And then there is a good characterisation of contemporary salon music in the third number.

Stanford wrote his Six Characteristic Pieces, op.132 in 1912 for the pianist Moritz Rosenthal, who was slated to perform the composer’s stunning C minor Piano Concerto. Unfortunately, the pianist failed to play either works. The opening piece, ‘In Modo Dorico’ was clearly important to the composer. He arranged it for organ as well as utilising it in his opera The Travelling Companion. The final ‘Toccata’ was used as an ‘advanced’ grade piece in 1921. It is an incisive number that is almost dance-like in its progress. Here and there the listener can hear an allusion to the yet unwritten ‘I got rhythm’ by George Gershwin. The ‘Romance’ is quite beautiful and passionate in its mood. The ‘Study’ has a touch of Mendelssohn about it whilst the ‘Roundel’, which was dedicated to Robert Schumann, is largely reflective and intimate without being pastiche.     

The Five Caprices, op.136 (1913) are difficult and complex works that demand a high level of technical ability. The opening piece is a bravura march. The second is written in a dark, mystical Celtic mood that seems far removed from anyone’s idea of a ‘caprice.’ I agree with Howell’s suggestion that this is a ‘pianistic parallel to the …Caoine (dirge sung by mourners) from the Clarinet Sonata. For me, this is one of the most impressive pieces on this CD and also in Stanford’s piano music. Caprice no.3 in G minor nods towards William Sterndale Bennett: the middle ‘trio’ section is particularly attractive. I was struck by the thoughtful working out of the fourth Caprice -lots of Brahmsian ‘thirds’ and ‘sixths’ in the right hand. Surely this is Stanford telling a story? Howell does suggest it could have been called a Ballade-Caprice. The set ends with a lovely waltz.  A good ending to what is one of the most impressive works on this CD.

The Twenty Four Preludes in all the keys, op.163 (1918) deserve a major essay in their own right. In spite of Fuller-Maitland (op.cit) these represent a major achievement by Stanford. The composer has made use of the same key arrangement as Bach in his 48 Preludes and Fugues. Yet these pieces are not always serious or portentous. John F. Porte has suggested that they ‘cover almost every mood, from that of the funeral procession to the jovial, and from the weighty Hibernian march to fairy-like charm and grace’. Typically they exemplify a good understanding of pianism and formal construction. Some have been given a title, presumably by the composer. These include ‘Study’, ‘Tempo di Valse’, ‘In the Woodland’, ‘Carillons’ and ‘In Memoriam M.G.’
This is music that is largely summative in effect rather than ground-breaking. The composer is clearly looking back rather than speculating on the future. The fact that this manifestly ‘tonal’ sequence was devised at a time when other composers were indulging in atonality and presiding over the breakdown of the tonal system is surely telling. Yet these are lovely, often sensual, pieces that defy categorisation. We can listen to these with an open mind and enjoy the drama, the passion, the variety, the invention and the grandeur of design for what it is- a major contribution to British piano music.   

The liner notes (by Christopher Howell) are superb. A short essay looking at ‘Stanford the Pianist’ explores the composer’s relationship with the instrument from a highly competent youthful performer to his love of playing chamber music and song accompaniments in his later years. There is then an overview of the piano music before a dissertation-style examination of each of the pieces or sets of pieces.
I was delighted by Howell’s performance. It would be so easy to be patronising when playing the ‘grade’ pieces, however he brings the same dedication and conviction (backed by a clear scholarly understanding) to all this music no matter how elementary or technically difficult. The sound quality is excellent, with both the piano tone and the general ambience impressing me more than on the earlier disc. 

When I reviewed Christopher Howell’s Land of Sunset Glories back in 2009, I proposed that the only problem was that he had ‘teased us’: it certainly left this listener wanting more of Stanford’s piano music. Howell told me then, that the entire catalogue of piano music, including works still in manuscript, would require some 6 CDs.  I also noted in my review that it could be difficult to ‘present the ‘collected’ works now that he has started to ‘cherry-pick’ – suites and groups of pieces really ought to be kept together – the great with the less good, even.’ Howell has resolved this obvious problem by starting over again. He told me that all the pieces on Land of Sunset Glories ‘will be recorded again for consistency of acoustic’ – this is essential as the piano and venue have changed. I also note that he has presented multiple ‘movement’ works in order and together.
This is an immense project, but one that I believe is ultimately important, worthy and a major contribution to recorded British music. I eagerly and impatiently await succeeding releases in the series.

Track Listing: 
Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Six Waltzes (1876)
Three Waltzes, op.178 (pub. 1923)
Six Characteristic Pieces, op.132 (1912)
Five Caprices, op.136 (1913)
Six Sketches (Primary) (1918)
Six Sketches (Elementary) (1918)
Three Fancies (1924)
Five Irish Folk-Tunes, specially arranged (c.1922)
Twenty Four Preludes in all the keys, op.163 (1918)
Christopher Howell (piano)

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