Sunday, 10 January 2016

Sir Charles Villiers Stanford: Complete Music for Piano Solo Volume 2 Part I

It would be easy for listeners to dismiss this edition of the complete piano music of Charles Villiers Stanford as a conceit.  Here is a composer who is writing sub-Brahms, Schumann, and occasionally Wagner, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. At this time, Debussy and Scriabin, in Europe and Cyril Scott, William Baines and John Ireland in the United Kingdom were in the vanguard of pianism. The ‘insidious’ influence of jazz had arrived from the USA and was beginning to influence musicians in Europe. In 1909 Arnold Schoenberg issued his atonal (but beautiful) Three Piano Pieces, op.11. These are a million miles away from everything on these discs.
Yet this reviewer would give up a lot of piano music from ‘progressive’ composers to be enabled to enjoy what Stanford has written for the piano. I have wondered why this is. I believe it comes down to three things: honesty, technical competence and sheer musical pleasure.  With perhaps a fourth reason for good measure: the hint of the Celtic Dawn. 

The second volume of this major exploration of Charles Villiers Stanford’s piano music opens with Two Novellettes. These pieces date from 1874 and have remained in holograph until Christopher Howell created the present performing edition. It was produced during his first half year visit to Germany. There he studied with the ‘dry’ and ‘desiccated’ composer and Schumann enthusiast Carl Reinecke (1824-1910). The Novellettes owe much to Schumann’s exemplars complete with appropriate mood-swings redolent of the German’s alter-egos, Eusebius and Florestan.  The second Novellette opens with a Schubertian theme, soon to be replaced by something from Schumann, and enjoying an operatic gallop theme as the third subject. As an aside, the adjectives applied to poor Reinecke were soon to be heaped on Stanford – usually by people who knew little of his music.

The Suite for pianoforte, op.2 was penned around 1875 and featured four old time dances – Courante, Sarabande, Gigue and Gavotte. The movements are connected by some quasi-improvisatory passages. However it is not really a pastiche of Baroque music, more a re-presentation of these traditional forms for the Victorian audience. Howell notes the incipient ‘Celtic’ tone of the pensive Sarabande and the semi-Wagnerian harmonies of the final Gavotte.

‘Fare Well’ was written only two days after the death of Field Marshall Horatio Herbert Kitchener, (1850-1916) sunk of the coat of Orkney aboard HMS Hampshire.  The music alludes to the Westminster chimes (Kitchener had a house near the Abbey) and also to the Stanford’s own music including the heart-breaking melody of ‘Fare Well’ from the last of the Songs of the Fleet, op.117 which features in the central section. It may not be his greatest work for piano, but it is certainly a most moving tribute.

‘Six Song-Tunes’ presents a series of interesting and melodious little pieces well suited to the needs of the piano teacher. These pieces may be simple, but they are never patronising. ‘Tunes’ presented include ‘Sleep’, ‘Sun’, ‘Marching’, ‘Swing’, ‘Dance’ and ‘Sea’.

I have had a copy of ‘A Toy Story’ for many years: I still play them on occasion and I am never disappointed in their simple charm. This delightful little collection of ‘Schumann-esque’ miniatures does indeed tell a story – from a child alone, the arrival of the post-man, opening the parcel to reveal a new toy, the toy broken, mended and finally enjoyed. Child not alone. Not quite as bathetic as the story implies – clearly an adult was there to fix the toy!
These were some of Stanford’s contributions to the ever increasing demand for pieces needed by the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music. They were composed around 1919-20. 

Some years earlier (1894) Stanford had written Ten Dances (Old and New) for Young Players, op.58.  I guess that even in the last decade of the nineteenth century few of these pieces were modern in the sense of the ‘latest thing.’  Once again they had educational purposes in mind. They were dedicated to Stanford’s children Geraldine Mary (1883-1956) and Guy Desmond (1885-1953). Howell in his liner notes submits that these pieces hover between the Grade IV and VI marks at today’s level.  I like every one of these ten dances, but my favourites include the ‘Galop’, a dance that came from Germany in the middle 1800s, the ‘Morris Dance’ with its open air feel, and the hauntingly beautiful Parry-esque ‘Minuet’. As Charles Porte has remarked, ‘All these dances are fairly musical and characteristic’ of the composer. I shall be looking for a copy to sit on my piano.  
To be continued...

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