Thursday, 26 May 2016

Charles Villiers Stanford: Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor –Review from New York

One of my Desert Island Discs would be Charles Villiers Stanford’s Second Concerto, in G minor for pianoforte and orchestra, op.126 (1911). I think (and many would no doubt disagree) that this is the finest piano concerto written by a British composer. Yet, it is the American connection that concerns this post. It was dedicated to Carl Stoeckel [1] who, along with his wife, were patrons of the Norfolk Music Festival. This attracted leading performers and major composers including Sibelius. The other dedicatee was the composer’s friend Robert Finnie McEwen [2] of Ayrshire, Scotland.
Stanford’s Concerto was played a number of times in the United States before it was first heard in Britain at Bournemouth under Dan Godfrey on 7 December 1916.
Jeremy Dibble notes that the original intention was for Moritz Rosenthal (1862-1946) [3] to give the first performance in the United States during 1913. This proved impossible.
The premiere of the Concerto was given at the Musical Festival, Norfolk, Connecticut on 3 June 1915 under the auspices of the Stoeckels. The soloist was Harold Bauer [4] and the orchestra was conducted by Arthur Mees [5].

I found this contemporary review of the premiere in The Sun (New York) newspaper.
‘The real business of this evening was the hearing of two novelties. The concert began with Schubert’s unfinished symphony, conducted excellently by Arthur Mees. Then came the new piano concerto of Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, who was to have conducted it himself. Arthur Mees was an admirable substitute, for the former aid of Theodore Thomas had lost none of his cunning. The soloist was Harold Bauer, who, let it be said at the outset, played the new composition in a masterly manner, permitting not one flash of its brilliancy, one stroke of its incisive rhythms, or one winsome nuance of its melodies to escape the searching magic of his fingers.
The concerto itself, which is in C minor, will probably escape enrolment in the first rank, but it is a composition which may, and in all likelihood, will find its way into the repertories of numerous concert pianists.
It has a brilliant first movement, with broad clangourous thematic ideas, alternating with the necessary contrasts of suave melody. But the prevailing character of the movement is aggressive, virile, and above all things imbued with a fine confident temper, a song of ebullient jubilation written with fervid energy and technical virtuosity.
The slow movement has a touch of the English countryside in its melody, though some of the treatment suggests a respect for Dr. Brahms of Cambridge University. [6]
The last movement is openly Irish and its color may lead to the christening of the composition as ‘the Irish piano concerto, by the author of the Irish Symphony.’ It is a rollicking movement, full of brilliant passage work for the piano, while it is interrupted for a time by a song passage built on the theme of the second movement. The concerto as a whole makes a pleasing impression. It has elements of popularity, which are not inconsistent with musical value, while its unfailing tunefulness and the skilful treatment of the orchestra give it a restful charm for the average listener.
The Sun (New York) Sunday June 6 1915.

Charles Villiers Stanford’s Piano Concerto in C minor can be heard on YouTube.

Notes:
[1] Carl Stoeckel (1858-1925) was born in New Haven, Conn. In 1895 he married the heiress Ellen Battell Terry (1859-1939). Together they became patron of music and the arts. They sponsored glee clubs and choral societies. In 1899 they introduced the first of the annual concert in their home. Seven years later the event was mover to their ‘music shed’ on their estate.

[2] Robert Finnie McEwen (1861-1926) was born in Ayrshire. He practised as an advocate in Edinburgh. He was an accomplished musician and supporter of the arts.  He served on the Council of the Royal College of Music (1906-1926).

[3] Moriz Rosenthal (1862-1946) was a Polish pianist and composer. He was a student of Franz Liszt and came to be a major interpreter of Chopin.  His friends and colleagues included Johannes Brahms, Johann Strauss, Anton Rubinstein, Hans von Bülow, Camille Saint-Saëns, Jules Massenet and Isaac Albéniz.

[4] Harold Victor Bauer (1873-1951) was an English-born pianist who began his musical career as a violinist.

[5] Arthur Mees (1850-1923) American conductor specialising in choral music. 

[6] Brahms had been offered an Honorary Doctorate at Cambridge University, but had declined on two occasions: 1876 and 1892. 

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