Symphony No.4 in F, Op.31
Symphony No.7 in D minor, Op.124
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
Recorded 2 & 3 June 2006 in The Concert Hall, Lighthouse, Poole, Dorset
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: May 2007
CD No: NAXOS 8.570285
Duration: 71 minutes
It’s good news indeed that Naxos is recording Sir Charles Villiers Stanford’s seven symphonies. Although they are no strangers to being recorded (Vernon Handley and the Ulster Orchestra have already made a handsome set for Chandos), it may be that a fresh view will stimulate further interest in an area of the repertoire that is far more worthy and interesting than some commentators allow for.
Like Handley, David Lloyd-Jones is a very sympathetic and perceptive conductor of British music. But ‘British music’ can be a pejorative term. After all, play Stanford’s music ‘blind’ to a keen music-lover not conversant with his output and almost certainly the response would be ‘German, by a contemporary of Brahms’. It would be a reasonable enough ‘guess’, but that tells a fraction of the story.
Dublin-born Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) – conductor, organist and professor (at the Royal College of Music in London where he taught numerous soon-to-be-eminent composers) – did indeed study in Germany and his musical style is traditional and, to a point, Germanic – certainly European – but then so is Elgar’s, and Stanford could do ‘nobilmente’ just as convincingly. On his own terms Stanford was a fine composer; he had a gift for melody, rhythmic direction and lucid orchestration; furthermore there is a lightness of touch and a folksiness that is very attractive and buoyant and which contrasts with eloquence and depth of utterance. The slow movement of the expansive (40-minute-plus) Symphony No.4 (1888) is a fine example of Stanford’s ability to dig deep in emotional terms while fashioning a rigorous and variegated work that is impressive and satisfying. The large-scale Fourth is a contrasted and imposing work that leaves no doubts as to Stanford’s symphonic credentials.
Brahms along with Mendelssohn and Schumann are often cited as composers to whom Stanford most relates. These are certainly apposite references; but Stanford was no clone of these creators or any others; rather he identified with a particular milieu and developed his own style clearly in awe of, but not intimidated by, the musical past.
Symphony No.7 (1911), the last of Stanford’s symphonies, is a more concise affair, also in four movements, and displays a musical resource and economy that allows delicate changes of mood and colour while engaging with the long line of symphonic thought. The Seventh is a rather pastoral work, very expressive, written with a refined sensibility and admirable orchestral clarity – but it is not withdrawn. Rather there remains a lust for life and a wish to communicate in a musical language that was then being overshadowed by musical developments that, maybe, Stanford would not have countenanced; for example, the contemporaneous Second Symphony of Elgar is a far more complex and far-reaching beast than anything Stanford produces in his No.7. But there is, nevertheless, much to like, relish and appreciate in Stanford’s finely crafted ‘farewell’ symphony; the wistful opening to the third movement Variations being but one example.
David Lloyd-Jones and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra are consistently persuasive advocates for this eminently pleasing music. The recording is just a little too recessed and cavernous at times, but the ear soon adjusts. What is certain is that this is going to be a distinguished series, one that should find Stanford being given his due (he is usually ‘twinned’ with Sir Hubert Parry, not unreasonably, the latter probably having left us the ‘stronger’ set of symphonies, five in his case) and a change of assessment that should leave Stanford less ‘in the cold’ than may be his lot at present.