Monday, 14 May 2018

Charles Villiers Stanford: Concert Overture (1870)

Dutton Epoch have recently released a splendid CD of Charles Villiers Stanford’s (1852-1924) early orchestral music written between the ages of 18 and 23. It includes three works: the Piano Concerto in B flat (1873), the Violin Concerto in D major (1875) and the present Concert Overture.
Stanford completed the Overture on 30 July 1870, when he was only 18 years old. It was written shortly before the composer took up the position of Organ Scholar at Queen’s College, Cambridge.  Jeremy Dibble notes that the Overture seems to be the earliest of Stanford’s works for orchestra alone. The previous year had seen his Rondo for cello and orchestra, dedicated to William Eisner, Professor of Music at the Royal Irish Academy of Music.

The Overture has remained unpublished, and according to Dibble, may have never have received its premiere in the composer’s lifetime. The first performance is likely to have been at the English Music Festival (EMF) on 26 May 2017, by the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Martin Yates.  A couple of weeks later it was broadcast on BBC Radio 3.

Stanford’s Concert Overture reflects the musical style of Felix Mendelssohn and William Sterndale Bennett. This latter had written several overtures, which were still regularly played in 1870, including The May Queen, The Naiads, Parisina and The Wood Nymph. Listeners may also notice some influence from the music of Sir Arthur Sullivan. It was in 1870 that this composer’s delightful Overture di Ballo was first performed at that year’s Birmingham Festival.  Lewis Foreman (EMF Programme Notes) has also highlighted the potential impact of Arthur O’Leary (1834-1919), an Irish composer, pianist, music teacher and friend of the Stanford family.  

The Concert Overture is conceived as a sonata-allegro form. It begins with a slow ‘melancholic’ introduction before the music develops into a fast-moving presto.  Jeremy Dibble notes that the principal theme derives from the opening material. In contrast, the second subject is lyrical and tends towards the minor key. I certainly noticed echoes of Mendelssohn’s Hebridean Overture in these pages. The work is only seven minutes long, so there is little development. Soon the two principal themes recur, and the work ends triumphantly. The scoring of the Overture is ‘classical’ in its effect and avoids the overblown romanticism of the then prevailing Wagnerism. This is a satisfying work that belies the youthfulness of the composer: it deserves its place in the repertoire of Victorian British and Irish orchestral music.

Rob Barnett (MusicWeb International, April 2018) reviewing the CD has written: Stanford's generic title for the Overture does this smiling piece of Brahmsian sunlight less than justice. Its ideas and lines are suave while the tempo is middlingly fleet. There's little storm here - more Haydn Variations than Tragic Overture, if I can push the Hamburg composer [Brahms] connection. Stanford dispenses Olympian light and contentment.

Charles Villiers Stanford’s Concert Overture can be heard on Dutton Epoch CDLX 7350.

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