Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD: 38 Preludes from the Two Sets of 24 Preludes in all the keys for pianoforte, Opp. 163 and 179 – Sam Haywood, piano – Hyperion CDA68183, 69:41 (6/2/17) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi/PIAS] ****:

Irish composer and organ pedagogue Stanford has some effective statements in his extended homage to Bach, his 48 preludes.

Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) survives today more as a pedagogue and musical influence in the academic tradition of Cambridge and the Anglican persuasion, the teacher of such notables as Holst and Vaughan Williams. Highly conservative, Stanford sympathized with his conception of Brahms, as an upholder of classical values in the face of an increasingly chromatic modernism; and so, in reaction to the encroachments of Wagner, Liszt, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Varese, and Busoni, Stanford sought retreat into the music of J.S. Bach.  Christopher Howells notes that  Stanford “had amassed by the end of [his life] a corpus [of piano music] equal to, or greater than such near contemporaries as Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Grieg or Dvorak.”

Stanford produced two distinct sets of 24 preludes modeled after the Bach WTC, the Op. 163 (in 1918) and the Op. 179 (c. 1921).  Australian pianist Sam Haywood has chosen from among the 48 preludes those that appeal to him, since they do not conform to any “deep” or “significant” intention: they embrace a wide spectra of moods and sensibilities, from funereal to capricious, balletic to invocations of nature, a la MacDowell. Soundly constructed, they tend to fall into toccata, rondo, martial, and dance patterns. Stanford has bequeathed a suggestive title to many, like “study,” “tempo di Valse,” “Carillon,” “Humoreque,” “En rondeau,” and “In memoriam MG.”

We can hear the Bach influence at the second offering, the Op. 163, No. 8 in e-flat minor, whose Allegro in crossed-hand figures easily reminds us of the Gigue that concludes Bach’s B-flat Partita. The G-flat Major “Fughetta, Op. 179, No. 15” has a carefree countenance that seems to anticipate Poulenc. The e-flat minor, Op. 179, No. 8 could be attributed to Franck. The No. 38 in f-sharp minor, Op. 179, No. 14 accents the bass line in a manner redolent of both Bach and Faure.  The No. 32 in b-flat minor, alla marcia solenne “In memoriam MG” pays Chopinesque homage to Maurice Gray, who fell in WW I. The octave study in a minor, Op. 179, No. 2, marked Allegro con fuoco, imitates Chopin for its onrush of dark energy.

Faure once more exerts an influence in the f minor, Op. 179, No. 12, a kind of barcarolle with declamatory impulses. The  C Major, Op. 163, No. 1 imitates a Bach organ prelude, even the same C Major from WTC I. A martial texture applies in No. 17 in A-flat Major, Op. 163, reminiscent of Schubert. Schumann seems to have provided the model for No. 24 in b minor, Op. 163, especially in that Romantic’s night-pieces. Baroque forms appear in the “Gavotte” (No. 41) and “Musette” (No. 42).  Their relatively light affect contributes to the various “Humoreques” that appear, such as the E Major, Op. 163, No. 9, which could construed as a piece by Grieg.

The No. 43 in A Major “Alla sarbando” feels less Spanish than a descendant of Bach’s famous Chaconne in Busoni’s transcription. The tripping waltz, No. 10 in e minor, Op. 163 again bows to Schumann. A truly potent moment occurs in No. 38 in c-sharp minor, in which agogic shifts from ¾, 2/4 and 4/4 compete for dominance. The No. 27 in D-flat Major unites Bach with the more adventurous harmonies and angular modes in Liszt. Among the longest of the preludes is No. 16 in g minor, Op. 163, marked “Adagio con fantasia,” a merger of Bach and Chopin. A bit of Debussy, perhaps, emerges in the B Major, Op. 179, No. 23, in which Gallic melody and virtuoso ornaments meld and collide.

It has become obvious, after the better part of the hour of Stanford, that these preludes mean to be heard not as an integral set, but in selected groups. The various moods and musical excursions fit into that same mentality that warrants our listening to Grieg’s Lyric Pieces or Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words. Stanford’s music here does not approach the emotional depths of Bach or Brahms, but it remains light, dexterous, and skillful. Mr. Haywood (rec. 20-22 June 2016) has endeared many of these pieces to us, and several bear more inclusion in main-stream recitals. The excellent piano sound, courtesy of Engineer Ben Connellan, provides further motivation to explore this rarely performed keyboard repertory.

—Gary Lemco