CHARLES VILLIERS STANFORD: Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 126; Concert Variations upon an English Theme “Down among the Dead Men” in C Minor, Op. 71 – Finghin Collins, piano / RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Montgomery – Claves 50–1101 [Distr. by Albany], 65:48 *****:
By the time of Charles V. Stanford’s death in 1924, his reputation as a composer had been in a long decline. Challenged by the popularity first of Edward Elgar, whose music seemed to fully capture the Edwardian spirit, and then by that of Stanford’s own pupils, such as Vaughn Williams and Holst, Stanford came to be thought of mostly as the composer of sacred music central to Anglican devotion.
Born to Irish Protestant parents living in Dublin, Stanford in 1870 won a scholarship to study organ at Cambridge University, to which he’d return as professor of composition in 1888, teaching what seems like a whole generation of English composers that included Ivor Gurney, Frank Bridge, and Herbert Howells. In the 1870s Stanford won a further scholarship that allowed him to study in Germany with Carl Reinecke and Friedrich Kiel, celebrated teachers both but also musical conservatives of the first order. The influence of Stanford’s teachers apparently stuck with him; like most late-nineteenth-century composers in England and America, his music speaks with a German musical accent. And while his later works show some concessions to modernity, his musical language to the end remained firmly entrenched in that of Schumann and Brahms.
Stanford was also a celebrated conductor, and at the Leeds Festival of 1910, he conducted Sergei Rachmaninoff in his own Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor. The work and its style so impressed Stanford that he set to work on his own Second Concerto (the First having appeared in 1894), which debuted in 1911. As Jeremy Dibble mentions in his notes to this recording, the influences of Rachmaninoff’s style are clear but by no means widespread. A lengthening of musical phrases, allowing for the introduction of grand, epic tunes in the Rachmaninoff manner, are evidences of the influence, as are “the delicate polyphony deployed within the subtle accompanimental figurations, the use of distinctive low orchestral timbres (conducive to a more melancholy idiom). . . .”
However, if you didn’t know that Stanford’s concerto was a direct result of his hearing Rachmaninoff’s, you might not even identify Rachmaninoff as an influence. That brooding melancholy with which the Rachmaninoff Second begins and which is a hallmark of the Russian’s style is very little in evidence in Stanford, who maintains a jovial, even rollicking demeanor in the outer movements of his concerto. If Stanford favors the low timbres of the orchestra, his orchestral palette is decidedly brighter than Rachmaninoff’s, with gleaming brass interjections at the climaxes. Melancholy is pretty much absent from the songful slow movement as well, though there is a tinge of it in the air of nostalgic dreaminess that makes up the movement’s emotional profile.
As far as keyboard style is concerned, Stanford is much lighter, less chordal, than the note-thick Rachmaninoff. In fact, in the crystalline runs of the first movement and the pearly broken chords and arpeggios of the slow movement, I hear something of Saint-Saëns, something of Tchaikovsky, whose works Stanford undoubtedly knew well since he invited them both to Cambridge to receive honorary doctorates in 1893. But whatever influences lie behind the concerto, it has its own unique character, and Stanford remains his own man. The overall character of the piece is one of Edwardian heartiness, while the melodies have a quality all their own as well, the grand tune in the last movement, for example, has the big-shouldered vigor of Celtic folk melody, while the nostalgic slow movement has a kind of Victorian coziness about it. Besides, it’s all very well and very attractively put together.
That could be said, too, for the Concert Variations 1898), which has going against it the gruesome name of the theme it’s based on. Turns out that the “dead men” of the title are empty bottles! You see, this is an eighteenth-century English drinking song that demands a toast for the King; anybody who would deny such a toast is invited to lie down among the dead men (in modern parlance, “dead soldiers”) littering the barroom floor. As it turns out, Stanford’s piece is neither sanguinary nor party-hearty. It is, rather, an elegantly constructed, elegantly argued set of variations on the theme with an emphasis on a four-note motive that spells out the sentiment “Down, down, down, down; / Down among the dead men let him lie!” Like César Franck’s Symphonic Variations of thirteen years earlier, the piece ends with an extended sonata-allegro finale based on the theme. Like the Concerto No. 2, the Concert Variations is bright, confident, attractive music.
It’s good that recordings are giving Charles Stanford’s music a new lease on life; it certainly deserves to be heard. Stanford may have been a conservative slow to change, but change he did. His later symphonies, concertos, and popular Irish Rhapsodies show him adjusting his style to the new realities of Late Romanticism and taking new formal liberties that he couldn’t allow himself early in his career. Meanwhile, his later choral works, such as the Requiem, show him able to work in the largest choral forms convincingly and memorably.
Thanks to that rebirth of interest in Stanford’s music, both these works are available in other recorded versions as well. They would have to something very special to beat Finghin Collins and the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, who seem to have a special feeling for their countryman’s music. Winner of the Clara Haskill International Piano Competition in 1999, Collins is on the rise, appearing with major orchestras and now embarking on what looks like a hopeful recording career. His limpid playing allied to a staunch technique are what’s required in this music, which seems oddly to combine splashiness and elegance in about equal measure. Matching him, the RTÉ plays with refinement and brassy abandon, when that’s called for.
The musicians can be grateful for a recording of equal refinement. It’s ever-so-slightly distant by current standards but eminently natural sounding, with a canny sense of depth, plus an authentic balance between soloist and orchestra. It’s pretty much the balance you’d hear about half way back in a very good hall, which the National Concert Hall must be. Altogether, this is a super disc.
A rich reflections into Rachmaninoff’s oeuvre