About this Recording
8.570355 - STANFORD: Symphonies, Vol. 3 (Nos. 3 and 6)
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Charles Stanford (1852–1924)
Symphonies Nos. 3 and 6


Of that generation of British composers that preceded Elgar, the most significant are Sir Hubert Parry and Sir Charles Stanford. As composers and teachers, they laid the ground for the musical renaissance towards the end of the nineteenth century. Born into an eminent Dublin legal family on 30th September 1852, Stanford absorbed much of the canon of Western classical music before entering Queens’ College, Cambridge in 1870. Appointed organist at Trinity College in 1874, he spent much of the next three years in Germany. On returning to Cambridge, he galvanized the University Music Society with the British premières of such works as Brahms’s First Symphony and Alto Rhapsody, and attracted such artists as the conductor Hans Richter and violinist Josef Joachim.

Appointed Professor of Music at Cambridge in 1887, he overhauled the university’s MusB degree and oversaw the music society’s silver jubilee celebration, with honorary doctorates awarded to such composers as Tchaikovsky and Saint-Saëns. In 1883 he also became Professor of Composition at the newly-founded Royal College of Music, where his students included Bridge, Butterworth, Moeran and Vaughan Williams. He enjoyed lengthy conducting spells with such organizations as the Bach Choir and Leeds Philharmonic Society, received several honorary doctorates and was knighted 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 is the series of seven symphonies that traverse the greater part of his output. These typify both the strengths and limitations of his music, evincing a compositional rigour and expertise matched only by his older contemporary (and sometime rival) Parry, while seeming content to remain 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 during his last years. While he adhered to the classical, four-movement design (not for him the fantasia-like ingenuity of Parry’s Fifth Symphony), an often subtle approach to movement forms and resourceful orchestration make his symphonies worth exploring.

The two symphonies on this disc testify to the change in reputation that Stanford’s music underwent over little more than two decades. Completed in 1887, and given its première in London on 27 June that year, the Third Symphony enjoyed immediate and widespread success; indeed, it continued to be played well into the twentieth century, long after its composer’s larger-scale works had fallen from favour. The ‘Irish’ subtitle indicates its frequent deployment of folk-tunes as melodic material, yet such was Stanford’s formal aesthetic that the piece never strays far from the Austro-German symphonic tradition.

The first movement opens with a soulful theme, initially on strings, that takes on a more ominous air when brass and timpani enter. It builds to a brief but forceful climax, making way for the ruminative second theme on cellos, later adorned by woodwind. This unfolds at leisure, before the development gets underway with a determined and expanded restatement of the first theme; its successor is then alluded to as part of an evocative transition into the reprise, which features the second theme in expressively heightened guise. This tails away into a recollection of the first theme, now functioning as a coda that surges forwards before ending the movement in calm fulfilment. The second movement is a lively intermezzo whose main theme is suffused with the Irish jig motion such as Stanford often deployed in his instrumental music. Drawing the full orchestra into the fray, it makes way for a no less appealing melody that serves as trio. The initial theme then reappears to round off proceedings with abandon.

The third movement starts with an elaborate solo for harp, commented on by woodwind as if acknowledging its Celtic heritage, before moving into an expressive theme of a pronounced Brahmsian manner. Unfolding at some length, it reaches a climax that reviews the theme’s motivic components from a much more forceful perspective (note the underlying rhythm that gives this passage its momentum). The earlier mood having been re-established, the movement then closes with a fond allusion to the harp cadenza with which it began. The fourth movement sets off, after a few bars of anticipation, with a purposeful and energetic theme. Contrast comes with a hymn-like melody that yet lacks nothing in expressive power. The development opens with a restrained allusion to the first theme, then its successor, slowed down so that it resembles more a chorale, sounds evocatively on trumpets against expectant chords on strings. The first theme now makes a determined reappearance to initiate a varied reprise, the second theme again taking on its chorale guise but now leading into a sustained coda that sees the work through to a decisive conclusion.

Composed quickly in the spring of 1905, the Sixth Symphony had its première in London on 18th January the following year, yet, despite a high-profile performance by the London Symphony Orchestra and the composer, it received only one more hearing before succumbing to an eighty-year oblivion. The subtitle, ‘In honour of the life-work of a great artist: George Frederick Watts’, is important: Watts (1817-1904) was among the most lauded British artists of his era and Stanford’s work, if not overtly programmatic, was influenced by instances of Watts’s legacy.

The first movement plunges straight into a decisive theme displaying considerable rhythmic ingenuity. The second theme is more evidently expressive, though the tempo hardly relaxes as such and passes into a development where a striking violin solo against rippling strings serves as a transition back to the reprise. The second theme barely receives a mention as the movement heads to its energetic and emphatic close. The second movement opens with a poetic cor anglais melody that is taken up by strings and extended in some of the composer’s most attractive scoring - above all, its felicitous writing for woodwind. The central section has a more fatalistic tone, though the baleful brass idea with which it opens contrasts with piquant music for woodwind and harp. It presently reaches a nobly sustained climax, then the initial theme returns on strings to instill a sense of apotheosis. The remaining bars wistfully recall earlier motifs on the way to an affecting close.

The third movement is an unusually brief Scherzo whose rushing onward drive contrasts with a trio of lilting import. The two ideas alternate on the way to a transition whose rhythmic underpinning prepares stealthily for the Finale. Its main theme, announced on brass and timpani, has a march-like character that is intensified by much imitative counterpoint across the whole orchestra. A central section brings little in the way of relaxation, with intensive interplay of the main motifs leading to an atmospheric passage in which the main theme is gradually returned to the limelight. The greatest surprise is yet to come, however, as the movement winds down into a solemn epilogue that rounds off the work in a subdued but affirmative close.

Richard Whitehouse

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