A great place to begin an exploration of this final instalment of the Complete Works for Solo Piano by Sir Charles Villiers Stanford is the beautiful ‘Ballade’, op.170. This is a ‘late’ work written in the immediate aftermath of the First World War. Yet there is no angst or obvious reaction to the horror of that cataclysmic event. There is no ‘clue’ as to what the ‘story’ implied by the title may be. Suffice to say, it does not matter. The idea of the ‘form’ is to contrast both dramatic and poetic content. Chopin was probably the first to develop this title (four examples) and it was taken up by Brahms and Liszt. What Stanford’s contribution lacks in powerful drama is made up by exquisite lyricism and thoughtful pianistic figurations. There is an Irish mood to much of the work’s progress, which is also characterised by a sense of freedom and improvisation. I guess the this ‘Ballade’ has more to do with love than battle. One of my favourite pieces of Stanford’s piano music.
This two-CD set is the final instalment of a large project. In 2009, Christopher Howell gave us a sampler of Stanford’s piano music in his Land of Sunset Glories. In 2015, the first and second volumes of the present ‘complete’ piano works appeared on the market. Every piece that is extant has been recorded. Those works issued on the 2009 album have been recorded anew in their due place for ‘consistency of acoustic.’
Christopher Howell has provided information of the ‘lost’ piano music. This includes the Piano Sonata dating from 1885. The first book of Six Concert Pieces has also disappeared.
The survivors of the Six Concert Pieces are the ‘Intermezzo’ and the ‘Toccata.’ Howell notes that the final piece (No.6) of op.42 Book 2 is not ‘missing’, it is included in the manuscript. The piece was ‘recycled’ with only minimal tidying up (scarcely perceptible to the ear) as no.5 of Night Thoughts op.148. Howell deemed it unnecessary to record it twice over, but made the point of putting opp. 42 and 148 on the same CD, so anyone who wishes can listen to the three surviving pieces of op.42 together.
The Concert Pieces were completed in 1894 and dedicated to the pianist Fanny Davies. They were never published in Stanford’s lifetime and were most unlikely played by Davies. The ‘Intermezzo’ is particularly attractive, with a decidedly contemplative mood. On the other hand, the ‘Toccata’ is a tour de force that is fleet of foot. It is more ‘will o’ the wisp’ than ‘Widor!’
The suite Night Thoughts op.148 is the longest collection of pieces on this CD, lasting more than half an hour. They were completed in 1917. The notes imply that many of these numbers were composed ‘much earlier.’ There is a huge disparity of style which gives a lack of coherence to this Suite. In fact, I guess it is better to regard this as a collection that can be played as standalone pieces. The ‘Nocturne’ has a dreamy opening with a troubled march-like middle section. I enjoyed the ‘Ballade’: once again Stanford seems to be telling a tale of love rather than war. It is characterised by ‘serenity’ and ‘thoughtfulness.’ Charles Porte considers that the ‘scherzo’ is the least pianistic of these works, being ‘orchestral in character.’ Yet the listener will enjoy the jaunty and spirited Irish mood of this piece. It is followed by the Elgarian ‘A Soliloquy’ which is dreamy and introspective. The penultimate piece is a straightforward ‘Mazurka’, which ticks all the boxes for a lively, but in this case, slightly restrained dance. It has a memorable main theme. Interestingly, the ‘Mazurka’ was once popular in County Donegal. We are still in Ireland for the ‘Lament’. Of all these pieces, it is probably the one that strikes a note of sorrow commensurate with then-current events of Europe at war. Notwithstanding this Suite not working as an integrated whole, I enjoyed every single piece.
The Two Fugues (1922/3) are late works. They were written as a Christmas/New Year greeting to the pianist/composer Harold Samuel (1879-1937), who had once been a student of Stanford’s. As I understand, Samuel never performed these publicly, but may have played them at home. The first documented performance was by Christopher Howell at the Villa Bossi, Bodio Lomnago, Varese in Italy on 1 February 2015.
Howell states that they are ‘alternative versions’ of the second and third of the Three Preludes and Fugues for organ, op.193 (1922). They are not transcriptions. The second fugue in B minor, which is a ‘fuga alla giga:’ it could be described as an Irish Fugue. These fugues are not pastiche Bach (Samuel was a highly-regarded exponent of Bach’s music) but are certainly good examples of the genre.
I love the ‘Irish Dances’, op.89. As the title implies, ‘the Irish spirit is naturally very pronounced in these pieces.’ There are four: ‘March’, ‘Jig’, ‘Slow Dance’, ‘The Leprechaun’s Dance’ and a concluding ‘Reel’. The liner notes explain their complex publication history, with versions for orchestra (surely a desideratum for a new recording) and for violin and piano. Furthermore, the ‘Irish Dances’ were later ‘dished up’ by Percy Grainger in ‘a sparkling, show-off sort of way.’ There are several versions of Grainger’s ‘souped up’ dances on the market, so it is good that Howell has chosen to record the original Stanford incarnation. There is a restraint and subtlety about these that is denied to Grainger’s deliberately ‘over the top’ version. TO BE CONTINUED IN THE NEXT POST...
Six Concert Pieces, op.42, Book 2 (1894) No.4 Intermezzo’ No.5 Toccata
Night Thoughts, op.148 (1917)
Ballade, op.170 (c.1919)
Two Fugues (1922/3): No.1 C minor, No.2 B minor
Four Irish Dances, op.89 (1903)
Rec. Studios of Griffa and Figli, Milan, Italy, 29 October 2013; 6 May & 9 September 2014, 20 October 2015 & 11 February 2016.