STANFORD: The Complete Works for Cello and Orchestra = Cello Concerto in D Minor; Rondo in F Major for cello and orchestra; Ballata and Ballabile, Op. 160; Irish Rhapsody No. 3, Op. 137 – Gemma Rosefield, cello / BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Andrew Manze – Hyperion CDA67859 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi], 70:08 ****:
Unlike Hyperion’s “The Romantic Piano Concerto” series, which I believe now numbers 53 volumes, “The Romantic Violin Concerto” and “The Romantic Cello Concerto” series are proceeding at a far more measured pace. The cello series was inaugurated six years ago and is only now, with the current recording, up to Volume 3. As always, even when the music is less than stimulating, Hyperion strives to turn out a quality product. Here, the assignment falls to a liquid-toned Gemma Rosefield, a cellist for whom virtuoso is too noncommittal a term, and somewhat surprisingly but happily, conductor Andrew Manze. Manze is probably better known as a violinist and is usually associated with music of an earlier age than that of the High Romantic Charles V. Stanford. But Manze has been diversifying very successfully for a number of years now, leading Sweden’s Helsingborg Symphony since 2006 and appearing widely as a guest conductor with major orchestras in Europe and America, so his involvement probably isn’t so surprising after all. Manze’s experience as a soloist makes him an especially sympathetic accompanist.
Stanford wrote his Cello Concerto for the German cellist Robert Hausmann, who was in later years closely related to the music of Brahms; Brahms dedicated his Second Cello Sonata to Hausmann. The cellist had debuted and championed Stanford’s Cello Sonata of 1877, and so it was natural for Stanford to compose the Cello Concerto with Hausmann in mind. Though the two consulted on the concerto and Hausmann played the second movement in concert, it was apparently never performed in its entirety or published; it remained without opus number and was probably even forgotten by its composer.
The Cello Concerto, however, is not a forgotten masterpiece. But neither, given the modest repertoire of concerted works for cello, should it have been collecting dust all those many years. Despite being cast in the key of D minor, it’s essentially a light-spirited and ultimately sunny work, whatever storm clouds brood over the score being banished at the end of the first movement. That movement starts with a passionate theme bearing more than a passing resemblance to the first subject of Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto in G Minor. And while it was written in 1880, Stanford’s Concerto is closer in spirit and sound to the works of Mendelssohn and Schumann than to those of Brahms, who would exercise an increasing influence on Stanford. The second theme is a dancing tune in the major key with just a shade of melancholy, underscored by a Mendelssohnian clarinet duet; and while the dramatic first theme recurs in the development section, it’s dominated by a new lilting cello tune accompanied by the high winds. The recapitulation features a pretty effective cadenza—Stanford’s writing for the cello throughout is virtuoso but graciously idiomatic, too—and ends in a passionate D-minor whirl of sound, the last bit of darkness on the horizon. Following is a tender, nicely scored song-form slow movement and a rondo with a bounding first theme primed to bring the work to a light, bright, cloud-free conclusion.
Lighter still in character and musical quality is the Rondo in F Major of 1869, the product of a gifted sixteen-year-old even more deeply immersed in the early-Romantic past. It reminds me a little of the concerted music of cellist-composer Jacques Offenbach, though it isn’t quite that frothy.
The much later Ballata and Ballabile (1918) starts in the quietly serious vein of other turn-of-the-century virtuoso concerted pieces, with titles such as Legend or Romance, that purport to tell some unwritten story. It has the leisurely, unruffled lyrical manner of other late works by Stanford and is worth knowing despite that fact that it, too, was unpublished and had to wait seventy years following its debut to be heard again.
That leaves the most successful composition on the program, the Third Irish Rhapsody, a product of the years after the turn of the century when Stanford finally turned to his Irish roots as a source of inspiration, creating music with the natural beauty of folk melody and the elemental drama of folk tale. In the first section of the piece, the cello has a bardic role, rhapsodizing over a folk tune in a somewhat melancholy fashion, while the conclusion is a lively jig that’s nigh irresistible in its gaiety.
While there are rival recordings of the Concerto and Rhapsody, I can’t imagine they’re as sympathetically or as engagingly played as by the present musicians; whose hearts, I’m sure Stanford himself would agree, are in the right place. The judiciously balanced, nicely detailed recording is up to Hyperion’s usual high standards.
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