This CD is labeled 'Volume 1' and so we can assume that it is the first in a series that will comprise all the symphonies of Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924), in direct competition when completed with the fine set of the symphonies done by Vernon Handley and the Ulster Symphony on the Chandos label. One advantage of the present Naxos recording and its anticipated companions is that they are a bit less costly and a good deal more recent than the Chandos set. Beyond that, though, this recording of Stanford's Fourth and Seventh Symphonies bodes well for the complete set to follow because these are beautifully performed and recorded by the Bournemouth Symphony under David Lloyd-Jones.
Stanford's Fourth Symphony is a large 40+ minute four-movement work that is brilliantly scored -- lightly and transparently, making it sound at times more like Mendelssohn than Brahms -- and cogently constructed. It is melodious, even folksy in spots, but has its moments -- especially in the slow movement -- of real depth of feeling. There is no question but what Stanford sounds more German than British, but of course that is not all bad. Yes, it is conservative for its time, but that makes little difference to a listener 120 years after its composition. The Seventh Symphony, Stanford's last, was written in 1911 and it is hard to imagine that it came into the world at almost precisely the same time as Elgar's Second Symphony or, even more, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. But it is a beautiful thing nonetheless. Clearly Stanford had not changed much with the times and thus he wrote this even more Mendelssohnian work with hardly a trace of anything that couldn't have been written fifty years earlier. The first movement has that fairy lightness so associated with Mendelssohn and if nothing else it reminds us of the enormous influence the immigrant German had on the music of the imperial isle. The symphony continues in this genial manner through four movements lasting less than thirty minutes. The only thing remotely English about it is that it does seem pastoral like much English music of its era.
David Lloyd-Jones is a conductor who has proven his abilities over the years with treasurable recordings of music by such early twentieth-century British composers as Delius, Bax, Moeran and Alwyn. The Bournemouth Symphony clearly have the measure of these two symphonies and perform them eloquently and with conviction of their worth.
This recording is for those who like music of the Brahms/Schumann/Mendelssohn ambit and are interested in branching out a bit. They will not be disappointed.
on 27 September 2007
What is the story of Charles Villiers Stanford (1852 - 1924) like? It's like Moses' story. Having led British music out of the wilderness he found himself unable to enter the new promised land of creativity that came with the dawning of the 20th century. Stanford's fate was sadder, Moses' way was barred by his death, Stanford lived to see a new era spring up all around him which he did not like, and ended his days protesting at the innovations of younger composers. Even more cruelly he had taught many of them, including Vaughan Williams and Holst.
Naxos is embarking on only the second Cycle of Stanford Symphonies to have been recorded. The first was with conductor Vernon Handley on Chandos. Here David Lloyd-Jones, who acquitted himself well with his recordings of the generation later Bax symphonies, takes the baton in front of the excellent Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.
After several months this music is growing on me. At first is sounded - well - fine and tuneful, but not very substantial. In a word `Victorian': not high art, but full bodied heart-on-the-sleeve stuff. Romantic and proud of it. This is music of the dance. The first movement of the Fourth Symphony is an extended waltz not far from the music of Johann Strauss. The second continues in similar vein, swapping the vigour of the day for the gentle sensuality of the evening. The problem is that it sounded as if there was a limited, and limiting number of ideas here. This impression appeared confirmed by the Seventh Symphony, which sounded very similar but simply shorter - 28 minutes versus 42. Given that 23 years separate the composition of the two works this suggested that Stanford was not over blessed with original ideas.
The sheer quality of the performances has kept me listening to this CD. David Lloyd-Jones and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra deserve to be praised. These performances have an assuredness to them that normally only comes when an Orchestra and Conductor have played the music together for many years. Within this there is also an attention to detail that is vital in revealing the strengths of the music here.
As is usually pointed out, there is much influence of Mendelssohn, and of Brahms. But there is more: especially in the slower movements. There is a balletic grace that is not far from Tchaikovsky, and a developing nobility that was to see its flower in the music of Elgar.
And everything is well done. Even when the thematic material is not original Stanford handles it with such a deft touch and such conviction that it is lifted. Contemporary easy listening classical composers are so often content to go through the motions, with an apparent attitude that the audience should be grateful that they are being given something that is not too taxing on their ears. It is great to here an unabashedly conservative, easy to listen to composer of the past having nothing to do with that attitude and giving of his best bar after bar.
Is this great music? No. But it is a considerable pleasure.
Addition October 2nd 2007. For anyone listening to Stanford's symphonies for the first time the just released second instalment of the whole cycle of seven symphonies on Naxos, of Symphonies 2 and 5, may be a better introduction. Symphonies 2 and 5 are nature music rather than dance music and not far from Dvorak's later symphonies in sound. They also sound more like works that provided an influence for the next generation of British composers. Certainly if you like Elgar, Delius, or early Vaughan Williams you should like them.
on 31 July 2014
I always want to like Stanford's orchestral music. After all, he led English Church Music away from the saccharine influence of Mendelssohn at his worst as is demonstrated by the music of composers like Stainer and I would like to think that the orchestral music was similarly bold but it really isn't. The main problem is that Stanford very often uses material which doesn't justify the lengths of the movements. The 4th lasts over 42 minutes in this recording and the first movement in particular seems rather aimless. The 7th strikes me as more successful simply because at 28 minutes it's much tauter. The disc is cheap and if you haven't any of these symphonies in your collection it's worth a try but don't expect too much.