About this Recording
8.570285 - STANFORD: Symphonies, Vol. 1 (Nos. 4 and 7)
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Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924)
Symphonies Nos. 4 and 7

 

Of the British composers to have emerged immediately before Elgar, the most significant are Sir Hubert Parry and Sir Charles Stanford, who laid the ground for a musical renaissance at the end of the nineteenth century. Born into a Dublin legal family on 30 September 1852, Stanford entered Queens' College, Cambridge in 1870. Appointed organist at Trinity College in 1874, he spent much of the next three years studying in Germany. Appointed Professor of Music at Cambridge in 1887, he overhauled the university's music faculty and oversaw the music society's silver jubilee, when honorary doctorates were awarded to such composers as Tchaikovsky and Saint-Saëns. In 1883 he had been made the Professor of Composition at the newly-founded Royal College of Music, where he taught an impressive number of composers including Bridge, Butterworth, Moeran and Vaughan Williams. He had lengthy conducting stints with the Bach Choir and Leeds Philharmonic Society, was awarded numerous honorary doctorates and received a knighthood in 1902. He died, the respected but largely out-of-touch 'grand old man' of British music, in London on 29 March 1924.

Stanford early on established a reputation for choral and church music. His Evening Services are a central part of the Anglican liturgy, while his part-songs still remain in the repertoire of choral societies, above all a masterly 1911 setting of Mary Coleridge's The Bluebird. Although he had passing success with several of his ten operas, none of them held the stage: a major disappointment for one who vigorously espoused the cause of opera in Britain over much of his career. His orchestral music fared better, being taken up by several leading conductors and soloists of the day, though it was a mark of his declining reputation that many later works remained unpublished and even unperformed at his death.

Central to Stanford's achievement are the seven symphonies covering the greater part of his career. These are marked by a compositional rigour and also expertise matched only by his older contemporary Parry, while seeming content to remain well within the stylistic orbit of Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms: an indication of the retrogressive tendencies that saw him indulge in increasingly bitter polemic during his last years. Yet while he adhered to classical four-movement forms, his often subtle approach to the standard movement formats and resourceful orchestration make his symphonies well worth exploring.

Composed in 1888, the Fourth Symphony had its première in Berlin as part of an all-Stanford concert on 14 January 1889. It is cast in four movements, though with an Intermezzo (placed second) replacing the expected scherzo and a slow movement of notable range and depth. Over a lively accompaniment, the first movement opens with an animated theme that soon comes to a halt, when a more reflective theme in lower strings and wind takes over. Coming to a climax with brusque chords, it moves into a straightforward reprise of the exposition. The development section opens with questioning woodwind phrases over lower strings, quickly building to an expressive restatement of the second theme and its further presentation in very Brahmsian harmonies. A vigorous transition prepares for the recapitulation, featuring both themes in altered guise, then the coda begins with a stealthy build-up in the orchestra before accelerating to its energetic conclusion. The second movement opens with a wistful theme on clarinet, soon taken up by strings. Violas and cellos have a warmer second theme where harp plays a discreet contribution, after which both themes reappear eloquently on strings. Over throbbing timpani a brief climax is reached, before the clarinet re-enters with the first theme and, after some fleeting recollections of the second, the movement reaches a pensive close. The third movement builds from initially uncertain exchanges in the strings to a confident climax with brass and timpani to the fore. An atmospheric transition leads to the second theme, initially on upper strings but with woodwind adding important contributions. The central section returns to the initial theme, and a resplendent climax on full orchestra that subsides into a piquant presentation of the second theme on flute and harp, soon returning to upper strings and another opulent climax. The movement's final portion focuses initially on the second theme, heard in autumnal scoring, but the first theme returns to provoke two climaxes separated by its chorale-like presentation on brass and strings, before moving onward to a serene end. The finale opens with a lively first theme of folk-dance character, followed by a flowing but rhythmically-irregular theme that rounds off the exposition. The development takes the first theme through a range of scoring, reaching a climax in a return to the second theme, before an atmospheric transition to the modified recapitulation. This builds to a coda whose synthesis of both themes closes the work in a triumphal apotheosis.

By the time he composed his Seventh Symphony in 1911, Stanford had been overtaken by Elgar and a younger generation of composers, many of whom had been his students. In spite of, or even perhaps because of this, his last symphony is the shortest and most classical of the series, evincing a Mendelssohnian lightness decidedly out of step with an era drawn to Strauss, Debussy and even Stravinsky. Over rustling strings, the first movement opens with a lively theme that soon takes on full orchestral guise. The second theme is relaxed, even suave in manner and ends with a brief recall of the initial rustling accompaniment. Surprisingly, the development proceeds forcefully, drawing mainly on the first theme but turning to its successor for a limpid transition into the recapitulation. Subtly modified, this leads into a coda whose forceful manner recalls that of the development, before effecting a sombre close. Designated as 'in the tempo of a minuet', the second movement's gently undulating first theme is succeeded by one that is more unsettled, its underlying rhythm persisting as the first theme reemerges. The second theme also has a rather different rhythmic profile on its return, and the movement ends with a brief yet conclusive recall of the first theme. The slow movement opens with a tenderly expressive theme, made the subject of five variations. The first gently extends the theme's rhythmic profile, then the second opens up its expressive range over an ominous underpinning on lower woodwind and strings. The third presents the theme on woodwind and horn, while the fourth consists of ruminations between woodwind and brass over strings. The fifth variation picks up the tempo in livelier exchanges between wind and strings, reaching an animated climax that, after a pause, leads straight into the finale. A confident first theme is followed by a more reflective second with strings to the fore, the first theme then being recalled in a striking decrescendo on brass and strings. The development is brief but resourcefully builds the impetus for a heightened recapitulation. Here the second theme is made the basis of a crescendo into the coda, so concluding the whole symphony in a lively and affirmative manner.

Richard Whitehouse

 


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