Music Easy Listening

By Phillips, Peter | The Spectator, February 11, 2012 | Go to article overview

Music Easy Listening


Phillips, Peter, The Spectator


There is only one place these days where the music of Charles Villiers Stanford (18521924) sends its hearers into reliable ecstasy, and that is in choirs and places where they sing. Otherwise he is something of a bust.

Despite having written seven symphonies, nine operas, 11 concertos (including three piano, two violin, a cello and a clarinet), eight string quartets and countless songs, piano pieces and other chamber works, he is now celebrated for a tiny fraction of his output.

Stanford himself thought that to be renowned as a composer of Anglican Church music was not enough. He wanted to be measured alongside international (i. e. , German) stars, and so went to Berlin to study with the leading teachers of the day, and in particular to meet Brahms. His respect for Brahms's take on the romantic orchestral tradition never wavered, and he was responsible for several first performances in the UK of some of the master's most important works.

In return the Germans showered first performances on him: in addition to operatic productions in Hanover, Hamburg, Leipzig and Breslau, his 'Irish' Symphony (No.

3) was performed in Berlin and Hamburg early in 1888. Championed by Richter and Bulow, this symphony was also chosen for the opening concert of the new Concertgebouw in Amsterdam (November 1888) and Mahler included it in his concerts with the New York Philharmonic in 1911. On 14 January 1889 Stanford enjoyed the rare privilege of conducting a concert in Berlin entirely of his own music, a concert which included the Fourth Symphony, specially commissioned for the event. Not bad for a composer who, even though he was Irish by birth, would have been tainted at the Berlin HQ by the stigma of coming from 'Das Land ohne Musik'.

Sit transit gloria mundi. Yet there is something of a revival on hand of just that music which he hoped would be his real legacy.

Not his operas, of course, those pieces in which he put most hope of immortal fame - really too much of a risk; but of his larger orchestral music. His Piano Concerto No. 2 was revived in the 2008 season of the Proms by the Ulster Orchestra, and there are currently three complete cycles of his seven symphonies on the market: two from the Ulster orchestra under David Lloyd-Jones and one from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under Vernon Handley. And now Gemma Rosefield and the BBC Scottish SO have released a recording of his complete works for cello and orchestra, including the Concerto, on a Hyperion disc in an admirable series entitled 'The Romantic Cello'. …

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