About this Recording
8.570289 - STANFORD: Symphonies, Vol. 2 (Nos. 2 and 5)
English  German 

Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924)
Symphony No. 2 'Elegiac' • Symphony No. 5 'L'Allegro ed il Penseroso'

 

Of that generation of British composers which preceded Elgar, the most significant are Sir Hubert Parry and Sir Charles Stanford. Born into an eminent Dublin legal family on 30 September 1852, Stanford had absorbed much of the canon of Western classical music before entering Queens' College, Cambridge in 1870. Appointed organist at Trinity College in 1874, he then spent much of the next three years studying composition in Germany. On returning to Cambridge, he galvanized the University Music Society with the British premières of Brahms's First Symphony and Alto Rhapsody, and also attracted such artists as the conductor Hans Richter and the violinist Josef Joachim.

Appointed Professor of Music at Cambridge in 1887, he overhauled the university's Bachelor of Music degree and oversaw the Music Society's silver jubilee celebration. Relations with Cambridge were never wholly amicable, and 1883 saw his appointment as Professor of Composition to the newly-founded Royal College of Music, where his students included Bridge, Butterworth, Moeran and Vaughan Williams. He also enjoyed lengthy conducting stints with the Bach Choir and the Leeds Philharmonic Society, was awarded numerous honorary doctorates and received a knighthood in 1902. He died, the much respected but largely out-of-touch 'grand old man' of British music, in London on 29 March 1924.

Central to Stanford's achievement are the seven symphonies that traverse the greater part of his output. These typify the strengths and limitations of his music as a whole, being marked by a compositional rigour and expertise, while remaining well within the stylistic ambit of Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms: an indication of the retrogressive tendencies that caused him to indulge in increasingly bitter polemic in his last years. Although he adhered to the classical, four-movement design, Stanford's often subtle approach to the standard forms and resourceful orchestration make his symphonies well worth exploring.

The Second Symphony was composed in the summer of 1880, and was given its première at a concert promoted by the Cambridge University Music Society on 7 March 1882 (one that featured Joachim in the Violin Concerto of Brahms). Another performance took place at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester the following year, when it served as the improbable curtain-raiser for Gounod's oratorio La Rédemption, but received no further airings until the 1990s. In addition to its 'Elegiac' subtitle, Stanford prefaced the score with verses taken from Alfred Tennyson's In Memoriam; though the work itself possesses no known memorial function and is among the most classical of his symphonies:

I cannot see the features right,
When on the gloom I strive to paint
The face I know; the hues are faint
And mix with hollow masks of night;

Cloud-towers by ghostly masons wrought,
A gulf that ever shuts and gapes,
A hand that points, and palled shapes
In shadowy thoroughfares of thought;

And crowds that stream from yawning doors,
And shoals of pucker'd faces drive;
Dark bulks that tumble half alive,
And lazy lengths on boundless shores;

Till all at once beyond the will
I hear a wizard music roll,
And thro' a lattice on the soul
Looks thy fair face and makes it still.

The first movement opens with an anxious theme that finds its ideal complement in a more relaxed, Dvořákian theme with woodwind to the fore. After an exposition repeat (without the introductory bars), the development focuses on motifs drawn from the first theme, building to an unexpectedly affirmative climax whose reiterated chords are undermined by the first theme as the reprise gets underway. Both themes are now curtailed, making way for a lengthy coda in which the first theme reaches a forceful climax before the sombre concluding bars. The second movement centres on a theme both graceful and expressive, while a secondary theme hints at that 'nobilmente' quality Elgar was to make his own. The central transition features a chamber-like discourse between strings and woodwind, then the main theme returns and the music takes on marginally greater animation on the way to a brief climax, before winding down to its thoughtful close.

The Scherzo features a lively syncopated idea, redolent of those in Mendelssohn. This soon makes way for a more ruminative trio section, before the return to the initial music and a brief allusion to the trio melody at the close. Following with minimal pause, the finale opens with a sustained (and very Brahmsian) introduction, building gradually to the main Allegro portion, its energetic first theme complemented by the suave second theme, before the movement reaches a decisive codetta. The development makes play with elements of both themes, as well as those from the introduction, on the way to a modified reprise and a coda that skilfully draws together the main motifs into a triumphal apotheosis, underlined by the portentous closing chords.

The reception accorded his Third and Fourth Symphonies [the latter on Naxos 8.570285] no doubt motivated Stanford in the writing of their successor. Composed in 1894 and given its première at the recently-opened Queen's Hall in London on 20 March 1895, the Fifth Symphony was well received but did not achieve comparable success, and remained unpublished until 1923. The subtitle is that of two contrasting poems by John Milton, with verses from each of these included in the score.

The first movement commences with a brusque brass summons, rushing strings and incisive woodwind – as if illustrating the initial verse of L'Allegro:

Hence loathèd Melancholy,
Of Cerberus, and blackest Midnight born,
In Stygian Cave forlorn,
'Mongst horrid shapes, and shrieks, and sights unholy.
Find out some uncouth cell
Where brooding Darkness spreads his jealous wings,
And the night-raven sings;
There under ebon shades, and low-brow'd rocks,
As ragged as thy Locks,
In dark Cimmerian desert ever dwell.

But come thou Goddes fair and free,
In Heav'n yclep'd Euphrosyne,
And by men, heart-easing Mirth …

The first theme is of unexpected jollity, and this mood continues in the more relaxed second theme – the two relating to the following verse:

Haste thee, Nymph, and bring with thee
Jest, and youthful Jollity,
Quips and Cranks, and wanton Wiles,
Nods, and Becks, and wreathèd Smiles,
Such as hang on Hebe's cheek,
And love to live in dimple sleek;
Sport that wrinkled Care derides,
And Laughter holding both his sides.
Come, and trip it as you go,
On the light fantastic toe;
And in thy right hand lead with thee,
The mountain nymph, sweet Liberty;
And if I give thee honour due,
Mirth, admit me of thy crew …

There is no exposition repeat; instead, the introduction's baleful mood informs a purposeful development, at length reaching a point of repose before the modified reprise ensues. The introductory music once again returns, before a coda wraps up the movement with decisiveness.

There follows an intermezzo whose carefree manner does not preclude rhythmic subtlety (notably in the resourceful timpani writing), and whose easy gait makes possible the more energetic, though equally amiable, trio – the two themes evidently alluding to the following verse:

Oft list'ning how the hounds and horn,
Cheerly rouse the slumb'ring morn,
From the side of some hoar hill,
Through the high wood echoing shrill.

While the ploughman near at hand,
Whistles o'er the furrow'd land,
And the milkmaid singeth blithe,
And the mower whets his scythe,
And every shepherd tells his tale
Under the hawthorn in the dale.

Sometimes with secure delight
The upland hamlets will invite,
When the merry bells ring round,
And the jocund rebecks sound
To many a youth, and many a maid,
Dancing in the chequer'd shade;
And young and old come forth to play
On a sun-shine holy-day,
Till the live-long day-light fail,
Then to the spicy nut-brown ale,
With stories told of many a feat,
How faery Mab the junkets eat …

These delights, if thou canst give,
Mirth with thee, I mean to live.

The main theme returns climactically, before it ends with a deft coda.

The searching slow movement is inspired by verses from Il Penseroso:

But hail thou Goddess, sage and holy,
Hail divinest Melancholy,
Whose saintly visage is too bright
To hit the sense of human sight;
And therefore to our weaker view,
O'erlaid with black staid Wisdom's hue.

Come, pensive Nun, devout and pure,
Sober, steadfast, and demure,
All in a robe of darkest grain,
Flowing with majestic train,
And sable stole of cypress lawn,
Over thy decent shoulders drawn.
Come, but keep thy wonted state,
With even step, and musing gate,
And looks commercing with the skies,
Thy rapt soul sitting in thine eyes

But first, and chiefest, with thee bring,
Him that yon soars on golden wing,
Guiding the fiery-wheeled throne,
The cherub Contemplation,
And the mute Silence hist along,
'Less Philomel will deign a song,
In her sweetest, saddest plight …

From warmly expressive string writing, this proceeds to a sonorous paragraph for strings and brass, then the central span (with a limpid clarinet melody) evinces greater animation in invoking the verse below:

Sweet bird that shunn'st the noise of folly,
Most musical, most melancholy!
Thee, chauntress, oft the woods among,
I woo to hear thy even-song;
And missing thee, I walk unseen
On the dry smooth-shaven green,
To behold the wandring Moon,
Riding near her highest noon …

An allusion to the initial motif on brass sees the return of the main theme, enriched with unexpected harmonic modulations, and the movement heads to its close in a mood of ruminative contemplation.

Opening hesitantly, the finale finds inspiration in the following verse:

Oft on a plat of rising ground,
I hear the far-off curfew sound,
Over some wide-water'd shore,
Swinging slow with sullen roar …
Sometime let gorgeous Tragedy
In sceptr'd pall come sweeping by,
Presenting Thebes, or Pelops' line,
Or the tale of Troy divine.

And as I wake, sweet music breathe
Above, about, or underneath,
Sent by some spirit to mortals good,
Or th' unseen Genius of the wood.
But let my due feet never fail,
To walk the studious cloisters pale,
And love the high-embowèd roof,
With antique pillars massy proof,
And storied windows richly dight,
Casting a dim religious light…

It alights on an uneasy theme that generates considerable momentum as it unfolds. A chorale for brass provides the necessary breadth, and is followed by a codetta that prepares for the development over the stealthy pizzicati heard at the outset. This quickly builds to a powerful version of the first theme; after which, an evocative transition merely hints at that theme, allowing the chorale greater prominence in the reprise. At length, undulating strings prepare for the extended coda. This builds to an even more powerful return of the first theme, then broadens into a grandiloquent transformation of the chorale (with organ to the fore) that evokes the sheer splendour of Milton's verse:

There let the pealing organ blow,
To the full voic'd quire below,
In service high, and anthems clear,
As may with sweetness, through mine ear,
Dissolve me into ecstasies,
And bring all Heav'n before mine eyes.

before the music gradually dies down to a close of calm affirmation.

Richard Whitehouse

 


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