Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) was born in Dublin, Ireland into a well-off and highly musical family. He was educated at Cambridge where he was appointed organist of Trinity College. He continued his musical education with Carl Reinecke (1824-1910) in Leipzig and Kiel in Berlin. He succeeded George MacFarren 1813-1887) as Professor of Music at Cambridge and taught at the Royal College of Music, later Director.
He counted among his pupils some of the great names in early 20th century British music including Gustav Holst, Ralph Vaughan Williams, John Ireland, Frank Bridge and Arthur Bliss.
Stanford was prolific as a composer writing operas, choral works including a very fine Requiem and much music for the Anglican Church, seven symphonies, numerous concertos, six Irish Rhapsodies, songs, chamber music and works for organ and piano. His numbered works total 194.
Champs Hill Records www.champshillrecords.co.uk have just released a new recording of Stanford’s Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor together with a number of works for solo piano with pianist Benjamin Frith www.rncm.ac.uk/people/benjamin-frith and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales www.bbc.co.uk/bbcnow/events conducted by Andrew Gourlay www.andrewgourlay.com
Stanford wrote his Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor, Op.126 in 1911 at the time of a visit to England of the Russian pianist and composer, Rachmaninov. Indeed, there are moments in Stanford’s concerto that recall a degree of Russianness. The new concerto was tried out at the Royal College of Music in September 1911 but, despite interest from Moritz Rosenthal and Willem Mengelberg was not premiered until 1915 when, through the efforts of Horatio Parker it was included in the Norfolk Music Festival, Connecticut, USA played by Harold Bauer with Arthur Mees conducting. Stanford and his wife could not be present. They had booked to travel to the US on the Lusitania on 15th May but the ship was torpedoed off the coast of Ireland on 7th May.
The Allegro moderato bursts forth, full of energy, horns rising over the piano arpeggios through some rather Brahmsian passages with Benjamin Frith providing such wonderfully assured playing, weaving effortlessly around the orchestral accompaniment. Soon there is a particularly lovely quieter, stiller moment, beautifully shaped by Frith and the orchestra. For all the Germanic influences Stanford reveals his own voice. There are some decisive, more powerful moments as well as a lovely moment for cello and woodwind over a rippling piano motif which the piano takes forward with the woodwind, weaving a lovely melody. Frith draws out so much beauty from these quieter passages aided by a quite lovely orchestral accompaniment. The music rises through some fine, sturdier passages which for all their fine flow have an underlying tautness. Later there is another gorgeous moment of great poetry before pianist and orchestra rise through some quite thrilling bars that lead to the coda.
Frith brings some memorable moments to the Adagio Molto - Piu mosso, opening with lovely little ripping phrases as the theme is gently revealed. There is a wistful orchestral accompaniment before the music rises subtly in dynamics. An oboe joins the ripping piano theme and, as the melody flows gently forward, there are occasionally Brahmsian intervals that Stanford seems to have unconsciously absorbed and made his own. A trumpet is heard over a hushed passage for piano and orchestra before gaining in forward movement in the orchestra, the piano providing lovely decorations. Occasionally there is a Russianness that, to me, recalled Rachmaninov or, indeed, Medtner. The rippling chords rise up before falling and leading to the coda which is especially fine.
Frith and the orchestra leap into action in the Allegro molto, soon moving ahead quickly in a crisp staccato theme for piano. Here, there are hints of Stanford’s Irish roots with some very fine slower passages before regaining a fast flow through some terrific rising and falling scales for piano. The second subject returns with all its Irish flavour before gathering pace to rush with terrific fluency to a rigorous coda.
Benjamin Frith, with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Andrew Gourlay, moulds the music wonderfully, keeping a taut reign where necessary, finding all the poetic moments.
The Concerto has a first rate recording at the BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, Wales.
Important to this new release are the works for solo piano that haven’t received much attention from record companies.
The three Dante Rhapsodies, Op.92 were written for Percy Grainger who, as a pianist, much impressed Stanford. Grainger gave the premiere of No’s 2 and 3 at the Bechstein Hall, London (now Wigmore Hall) in February 1905 and performed the whole set the following month.
No. 1 'Francesca' opens gently and thoughtfully, Frith gently shaping the fine theme before building through rolling phrases. This pianist is quite captivating in the way he shapes and moulds this piece revealing a Lisztian breadth. There are passages of sustained restraint and poetry before slowly lightening in mood through delicate passages, exquisitely drawn. The music rises through more dramatic moments with an almost Schumannesque sense of fantasy before falling to a darker hue and a sad little coda that, nevertheless, ends on firm chords.
No. 2 'Beatrice' opens with a gentle forward flow, rising subtly through bars of more intense emotion, beautifully controlled here. Frith’s phrasing and attention to dynamics, the lovely ebb and flow, is wonderfully done. The music leads through some wonderfully conceived passages, again with all the fancy of Schumann and revealing Stanford’s gift for rhapsodic invention. Later the music rises powerfully through a most dramatic section before some lovely light and fleet passages in the lead up to the hushed coda.
No. 3 'Capaneo' moves forward with a strongly characterised theme, running through passages of varying nature, with a fast and fleet variation alternating with a broader theme, somewhat Brahmsian in feel. This pianist reveals a wonderful ebb and flow, wonderfully taut. Eventually the opening returns to be quickly varied before rushing forward to the lovely coda.
Stanford’s Six Characteristic Pieces, Op.132 come from 1912, a year in which the composer produced very little in the way of new works. Benjamin Frith chooses two of these pieces opening with the quite beautiful No. 3 – Study that rises from a delicate opening through firmer yet equally attractive passages with the fine melody running over the more intricate line. This is a lovely work, beautifully played. No. 4 – Roundel (In Memorium, R. Sch. June 8.1911), in memory of Robert Schumann, opens with a questioning little theme before quickly and gently moving forward, full of melancholy and nostalgia, rising centrally in drama and emotion before gently moving to the hushed coda where there is a sense of resignation.
Five Caprices, Op.136 date from 1913. Frith has chosen to play No. 5 - Tempo di valse for this recording, opening with a lovely little motif that quickly rolls into a waltz theme, full of lovely, often more dramatic moments with a contrasting central section. There is some terrific fluency form Frith, as well as rhythmic vibrancy.
There are some fine moments in these very attractive pieces played superbly by Benjamin Frith. The recording, made at The Music Room, Champs Hill, West Sussex, England, is tip top. There are excellent booklet notes.
Surely Benjamin Frith is the ideal pianist for Stanford. Is it too much to hope for more - perhaps a complete disc of Stanford’s solo piano music?