Notes and Editorial Reviews
Piano Concerto No. 2.
Concert Variations on “Down Among the Dead Men”
Finghin Collins (pn); Kenneth Montgomery, cond; RTÉ Natl SO
CLAVES 50-1101 (65:48)
Sir Charles Villiers Stanford is one of my favorite minor masters. He was a superb craftsman; his works are notable for their warmth and generous spirit. All seven of his symphonies are worth knowing, the first and the last being near masterpieces. Stanford also composed a lovely Requiem. The present album
brings together two highly successful concertante works. Stanford began the Second Piano Concerto after conducting Rachmaninoff’s Second Concerto with the composer as soloist at the 1910 Leeds Festival. Stanford completed his concerto the following year, and it contains several aspects resembling Rachmaninoff’s. Nevertheless, the concerto is very much a Stanford opus. His First Concerto, written in 1894, is modest and charming, and never was published; Piers Lane has recorded it. Stanford’s Second Concerto, however, was taken up by Benno Moiseiwitsch and Harold Bauer. The work continued to be played through the 1950s.
The first movement opens with a stentorian gesture from piano and orchestra. The piano part greatly represents the romantic hero, with a feeling of journeying. Finghin Collins handles the large-scale rhetoric very naturally, but without bombast. There is a beautiful episode for piano, cello, and two clarinets, a reminder of Stanford’s skill as a chamber music composer. Some of the development has a Brahmsian feel; Sir Eugene Goosens said that Stanford was the best Brahms conductor he ever heard. A brief thematic motive in the strings could have come from Leonard Bernstein’s
The second movement starts in a delicate and willowy mood, although not meditatively. Throughout the movement, Stanford develops a painterly use of the piano and solo winds. One recalls that Stanford dedicated his Requiem to the memory of the painter Lord Leighton. Collins is highly sensitive to the piano’s shifting colors, while Kenneth Montgomery secures many-hued playing from the orchestra. The final movement begins with a robust and majestic first theme. The second theme is lush and vaguely Irish (Stanford was born in Dublin.). The brass play particularly beautifully in the development. Collins is comfortable with both the large gestures and reflective passages in the piano part. All in all, the Second Concerto rests beside Stanford’s symphonies as a major accomplishment.
Stanford wrote his
Variations on “Down Among the Dead Men”
in 1898, one year after the successful premiere of Sir Hubert Parry’s wonderful Symphonic Variations (excellently recorded by Matthias Bamert and Andrew Penny). The tune is an early 18th-century drinking song. Collins plays the work’s introduction as a virtuoso declaration. Next, the theme is stated lovingly by the orchestra. The first three variations present much filigree work for the soloist. Four is a dance for orchestra, leading into a similar episode for piano in No. 5. Six is a big number for piano and orchestra, with a hint of Nielsen’s
. After an intermezzo in No. 7, Nos. 8 and 9 are reminiscent of Brahms’s late piano works. Ten, on the other hand, smacks of Beethoven’s
. Eleven concludes with a massive piano statement, brilliantly executed by Collins, going directly into 12, the finale. It opens with a vibrant orchestral preface, reminiscent of Stanford’s
. This variation includes thrilling exchanges between piano and orchestra, yet Collins also plays with considerable subtlety when required. Stanford has constructed a showpiece with substance. The work definitely deserves to be better known.
Throughout the disc, Collins and Montgomery perform with bravura and great stylistic understanding. The Dublin orchestra, familiar from so many Naxos CDs, plays consistently beautifully. The sound engineering is excellent: crisp, warm, with a wide soundstage, and just a touch of thinness. This album ranks as a high point in the Stanford discography, along with the best efforts of Vernon Handley and David Lloyd-Jones. I can’t think of a CD I’ve reviewed for
that I enjoyed more.
FANFARE: Dave Saemann
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