Wednesday, 13 January 2016

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

The Toccata, op.3 is an early work. It was written in 1875 during Stanford’s second half-year stay in Germany.  Howell notes the nod towards Schumann’s example of the form and suggests that the present work ‘must be a joyride for those who find the Schumann easy, slightly less for who don’t.’ It has also been influenced by Weber’s ‘moto perpetuo’ (the finale of the Piano Sonata No.1 which was deemed to be the ‘ne plus ultra of dexterity.’   It was dedicated to the pianist Marie Krebbs (1851-1900), whose ‘war horse’ was the Schumann Toccata in C, op.7. 

Everyone who has toiled to learn the piano has had to contend with Sonatinas. Whether Clementi, Diabelli, Spindler, Kuhlau or Beethoven, they are an ever present feature of teaching the classics from Grade I upwards. Some are good, some dreadful, many musical, some devoid of any artistic content. But all are deemed good practice. Other Sonatinas have been produced by composers such as Ireland and Ravel. (Why they did not call them Sonatas, I will never know. They are certainly not pieces designed to help the tyro with diverse aspects of technique.) 
Stanford’s examples fall between these two stools. Hardly likely to be used pedagogically, they do not really present recital standard material. Howell writes that Stanford may have been musing on sonatas by C.P.E. Bach and early Haydn. These interesting, sometimes wayward, examples of the genre are his reaction to this earlier music. The two examples, one in D minor the other in G major were composed in 1922. I did enjoy them and hope that one day I can peruse the scores. I guess that they may just about be in gift of a Grade 6½ -er!

The only work on this double-CD set that has been recorded before (two movements of the Suite, op.2 were released by Howell on Sheva 019) is the massive Twenty Four Preludes in all the keys, op.179. This were issued in 1998 by Peter Jacobs on the Olympia label (OCD638).
In 1918 Stanford had composed his first set of 24 Preludes and Howell muses that ‘it is typical of [his] industry, that…he should become the first – maybe the only – British composer to have produced two such sets.’
These preludes follow the same key-scheme as Bach used in his celebrated 48.  They were dedicated to Harold Samuel who was a concert pianist, teacher and exponent of Bach.

Christopher Howell ponders on whether these preludes ought to be played as a group, or whether it is acceptable to make a selection for recital purposes. He does not come to a final conclusion, but I think he considers that this set has considerable ‘continuity of thought between the one piece and the next’. I listened to these straight through: I certainly felt that the work is well-balanced, has much stylistic consistency and takes the listener on an emotional journey through a well-judged set of experiences, from the ‘Edwardian bombast’ of the opening Prelude in C major to the deeply funeral final Prelude ‘Addio’. This expedition includes references to baroque dance forms such as a ‘musette’, a ‘sarabande’ and a ‘gavotte’.
It has been suggested that the first set of Twenty Four Preludes was Stanford’s ‘war diary’ whereas the present work is his ‘peace diary.’

Like the previous volume of Charles Villiers Stanford’s piano music, the liner notes are excellent. Christopher Howell has reprinted his important essay on ‘Stanford the Pianist’ which examines his early years as an accomplished player, his enjoyment of chamber music and accompanying songs. There is a succinct overview of the entire corpus of piano works before a detailed study of the pieces presented on these two CDs.  I have relied heavily on these notes in making this review.

The quality of Christopher Howell’s playing is superb. I have remarked before that it would be easy to be condescending when playing the ‘educational music’ yet he brings considerable integrity to the pieces presented here, no matter their technical difficulty. I have no complaints about the excellent sound quality of these two discs.

Stanford’s piano music tends to be ‘summative’ of the past, without ever descending to pastiche I concede that by and large it is ‘conservative’ in its sound world. He is happy to use tried and tested forms and pianistic devices, yet he always brings his personal honesty and imagination to whatever he writes. These pages reveal that there is considerable depth, romanticism, accommodation to classical models, inspiration for young pianists and exploration of the then emerging ‘Celtic Twilight’. Every piece presented here is worthy of our attention. 

I understand that this major project will be fairly soon be completed with a third volume. So far, it has been a wonderful experience coming to terms with Charles Villiers Stanford’s music for the piano. I look forward to this with considerable impatience.

Track Listing:
Two Novellettes (1874)
Suite, op.2 (c.1875)
‘Fare Well’ (1916)
Six Song-Tunes (1919/20)
Toy Story (For the Children (1919/20)
Ten Dances (Old and New) for Young Players, op.58 (1894)
Toccata in C major, op.3 (1875)
Sonatina in D minor (1922)
Sonatina in G major (1922)
Twenty Four Preludes in all the keys, op.179 (1920)
Christopher Howell (piano)
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

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