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CLASSICAL  May 2009

CLASSICAL May 2009

Subject:

Surprising Stanford

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Thu, 7 May 2009 19:37:03 -0700

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

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text/plain (98 lines)

Charles Villiers Stanford
Music for Violin and Piano

*  Violin Sonata #1 in D, op. 11
*  Caoine (A Lament), op. 54/1
*  5 Characteristic Pieces, op. 93
*  Violin Sonata #2 in A, op. 70

Paul Barritt, violin
Catherine Edwards, piano
Hyperion CDA67024 Total Time: 77:54

Summary for the Busy Executive: Who knew Stanford was this good?

If nothing else, Stanford has won eternal glory as one of the forgers
of twentieth-century British music.  The pupils who came under his
tutelage include Vaughan Williams, Holst, Howells, Ireland, Bridge,
Butterworth, Moeran, Bliss, and Grainger.  A notoriously abrasive
personality and a bit of a bully, Stanford nevertheless saw to it that
his students knew their stuff.  Contrary to contemporary pedagogy which
emphasized "paperwork" to the exclusion of everything else, he insisted
that they be able to hear their scores performed.  As a result, they
came away with solid, practical technique.  In the minds of the public,
the students have overtaken the master.  It didn't help that he feuded
with Elgar and attracted George Bernard Shaw's skeptical ear.  He has
come down to us as a great pedagogue and a great pedant.

This is unfair.  Stanford has his nothing-much pieces, but he has his
poetic ones as well.  He excelled in chamber music, and indeed chamber
music held a lifelong fascination for him, as both composer and performer.
The first violin sonata's low opus number obviously marks it as an early
work.  Stanford had just returned to England after study in Germany, and
this piece shows us more than that he learned a lot. The first movement,
a sonata, proceeds as swiftly and as inevitably as Beethoven.  Stanford
may not have been a great composer, but he certainly thought like one.
There's an easy mastery on display, a swift, direct approach to complex
argument.  The sonata shows an imposing unity.  An impressively small
set of ideas, gestures, and themes, appears in all three movements.  An
arresting octave leap that opens the sonata also begins the main theme
of the finale.  On the other hand, the finale varies the theme of the
slow movement, itself a variation form. The slow movement structure is,
again, variation, but the argument proceeds more as a Schumannesque or
Brahmsian fantasy, while the third movement flies with the energy of
Mendelssohn.

"Caoine" (pronounced "keen") is part of a larger set of Irish Fantasies,
op.  54.  For those who know actual Irish folk music, this little piece
sounds as Liszt-Hungarian as Celtic.  On the other hand, its full of
parlor-ballad "Irish" tropes, notably a harp-like accompaniment in the
piano.  Apart from all that, however, Stanford constructs a beautiful,
long line of melody that lifts this little piece above the common of its
genre.

A "character" or "characteristic" piece slides in and around several
attempts to define it.  Beethoven described his first Leonore overture
as a "characteristic overture," by which he probably meant it was
characteristic of opera overtures.  Sometimes "characteristic" meant
"characteristic of the composer's style." Mendelssohn's characteristic
pieces tend to characterize single moods.  Schumann's characterize both
moods and characters.  Stanford's 5 Characteristic Pieces tend to follow
Schumann and, I must say, with as much formal resource.  The rhythmic
invention, particularly in the movements "In a Gondola" and "Arabesques"
where the beat seems to constantly shift, is astonishing.  Jeremy Dibble's
superior liner notes point out many structural felicities, all of which
indicate Stanford's habits of symphonic thinking, even in small forms.
The workmanship and the melodic invention are exquisite.

Stanford's first violin sonata, though finely-written, was old-fashioned
even in its day.  The second is conservative, but still of its time.
Here, Stanford has absorbed Brahms and has produced a violin sonata that
one can compare to those of Brahms without having to roll one's eyes or
make allowances.  I suspect most people in a blind test wouldn't be
surprised to learn Brahms wrote it, it's that good.  The first movement,
a fresh and lyrical sonata, nevertheless has a good bit of structural
steel in it.  Stanford builds it from two motives: a rising quasi-arpeggio
and a rising scale through the third, major or minor (A B C# or A B C).
Stanford reserves the minor version for the second subject group.  The
slow movement, a variation set, also begins with that rising scale
fragment (A B C#), this time not on the tonic, but on the mediant.  So
instead of D major, we have f#-minor.  The scherzo varies this idea.
Essentially, instead of A B C, we have A Bb C.  All this shows that
Stanford characteristically thinks in terms of entire pieces, rather
than in separate movements, just as Beethoven, past a certain point,
did.  The finale lies outside the rest of the sonata in that regard, but
it's still a marvelous piece. A sonata-rondo, it alternates a restless
first theme with a noble second, and the music soars.

Barritt and Edwards play elegantly.  It's a delight to hear them create
the most persuasive Stanford performances I've ever heard.  This CD may
well end up on my best-of-year list.

Steve Schwartz

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