Friday, September 10, 2010

Stanford : Fifth symphony and first Irish rhapsody

The Stanford festival continues here. First, remember to check the programme for Dublin's first actual Stanford festival at the website of the Stanford Society. And second, enjoy some more of his music.

I've chosen two of his best works for this second upload. The symphony No. 5 in D major, Op. 56, "L'Allegro ed il Pensieroso" is based on Milton's poem, and a companionable piece of music. The opening movement changes boisterously in with apparently unstoppable good humour (and an orchestral depiction of 'laughter holding both his sides'). The second depicts the pleasures of rustic life (you can tell that because it starts with open fifths in the lower strings and then horn fifths' in the horns). The opening of the third movement is one of my favourite Stanford moments as melancholy sweeps majestically – and by no means depressingly - into the picture. The final movement returns to the energetic mould which seemed to come naturally to CVS, and introduces the organ – not in a pealing burst, in the manner of Saint-Saens, but rather stealthily and effectively. The closing pages of the score unfold from a single quiet A on the trumpet most magically.

This performance by the Ulster Orchestra is conducted by Tuomas Ollila-Hannikainen. While the Finn may not have seen Stanford before, the Ulster Orchestra are old hands, having played and recorded Stanford superbly for many years under the baton of Vernon (Tod) Handley.

And it is to Tod Handley that I turn for the stocking-filler: Stanford's first Irish Rhapsody, recorded for the BBC. Vintage Stanford this, with a particularly splendid tympany part (well, it's Irish). And that wonderful tune in the middle? Ah—sure everyone knows that wan, yer honour.

Stanford : Symphony No. 5 in D major, Op. 56, "L'Allegro ed il Pensieroso"

Irish Rhapsody No 1 in Dminor

Monday, September 6, 2010

In praise of Charles Villiers Stanford – Ireland's finest composer

In Ireland, Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) is relegated to the shadowy status of "Anglo-Irish". What this terms means is that Protestant, unionist, English-speaking artists were not, somehow, truly Irish. Universities have departments of "Anglo-Irish Literature", to which our finest writers are relegated (Yeats and Beckett, for example). Why should a country deny citizenship to some of its greatest creative spirits? Because they did not fit in with the ethnically clean ethos of post-independence nationalism.

In Stanford's case, his opposition to independence made his position even worse. Although Trinity College Dublin wanted to give him an honorary doctorate in the early twenties, they were advised that it would be unsafe for him to travel to Ireland.

Anyone who has sung in a cathedral choir in Britain or Ireland will know and love Stanford's church music, which set a standard and started a vigorous tradition what extended almost to the present day. But what I am uploading is one of his piano concertos, played with great verve by the young Irish pianist Finghin Collins. It's classic Stanford – you can hear a nod to Rachmaninoff in the first movement, but the bluff, muscular energy is very much Stanford. I played the first piano quartet a while back, and you notice the same thing – you have to dig into the music from bar one (literally for the strings, who have a wonderful flourish to open the work).

Ireland named the recital room of its national concert hall after that pianistic nonentity John Field. So far, they have not honoured Stanford at all. However, signs of life – a Stanford festival is coming up, with a significant concert from John Finucane's Hibernian Orchestra. John, who is a superb clarinetist, championed the Stanford concerto. Imagine his surprise when he proposed playing it with the national symphony orchestra, only to be told that it was five minutes too long! Clearly, the petty nationalists are still ensconced. More about the Hibernian Orchestra's concert here. And more about the festival at the nascent Stanford Society's website

And here, for your delectation, is Finghin Collins, with the Ulster Orchestra conducted by Kenneth Montgomery at the 2008 Proms, in the Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 126

Download the concerto from Rapidshare

Bonus! A recording of Stanford's Stanford: Irish rhapsody No 4 in A minor, Op 141 (The Fisherman of Loch Neagh and what he saw) with the Ulster Orchestra under the magical influence of Vernon (Tod) Handley.

Download the Irish Rhapsody from Rapidshare