Stanford: Clarinet Sonata, Piano Trio No 3 / Plane, Et Al

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A Stanford CD première and a convenient grouping of the three chamber works with solo clarinet, in excellent performances.

The race for Stanford premières continues. The present disc completes the three Piano Trios. Nos. 1 and 2 were both recorded by the Pirasti Trio on ASV; my review of these may be read here. The other three works are Stanford’s only chamber music involving a solo clarinet and have all been recorded at least once. This is the first time they have been usefully grouped together, though.

I’ve listed the works above in the order they appear on the CD, but I shall discuss them in chronological order. I suggest that the listener might hear them in this order at least once, in the light of the following comments, as well as Keith Anderson’s excellent notes, which also adopt a chronological approach. I can see arguments in favour of the running order on the disc if you just wish to sit back and enjoy your Stanford.

When Stanford completed the Three Intermezzi in December 1879 he already had Sonatas for Violin and Piano (c.1876-77) and Cello and Piano (1877) to his credit, as well as a lost Piano Trio (c.1875). His handling of larger forms was at this stage creditable and sometimes bold, but he had also proved his mastery of smaller structures in the Service in B flat (1879). He does so again in these three delightful pieces which are beautifully written with a real dialogue between the instruments. The forms are simple ABA + coda but the Intermezzi are well contrasted, the first sweet and songful with a scherzando middle section, the second a passionate ballade-like piece with a gentle but flowing central idea, the last delicate and humorous, contrasting with a broader, hymn-like theme. Brahms is not so far away but he had as yet written no clarinet music; Schumann’s Romances for oboe and piano were doubtless known to Stanford.

In our own day, the fact that they are for an instrument with a small repertoire is a likely selling-point. Stanford, in order to get them published, had to arrange them for violin and piano. The title-page of the original Novello edition described them as for “Violin (or Clarionet [sic]) (or Violoncello ad lib.)” though a footnote on the first page of the score did mention that they were originally composed for clarinet. Parts for clarinet (and for cello) were available, but Stanford’s op.13 was issued in its original form only in 1979 by Chester.

The first recording was by Colin Bradbury and Oliver Davies on a Discourses LP (ABM 29), now available from Clarinet Classics. I have never heard this. Admirers of Stanford will most likely know the recording by Emma Thompson and Malcolm Martineau (ASV CD DCA 787), coupled with the Stanford Clarinet Concerto and the Concerto and Bagatelles by Gerald Finzi. Both this and the new recording are excellent. I noticed a few minor interpretative differences between them but nothing to make me prefer one or the other. There is also a recording by Gervase de Peyer and Gwyneth Pryor (GDP 1007). Stanford’s next work for clarinet was the Concerto op.80 (1902). My review of the King/Francis recording also discusses those by Hilton/Handley and Johnson/Groves. More recently Jonathan Woolf reviewed a historical recording from 1952 by Frederick Thurston, who as a young man had played the work under Stanford’s own baton.

Thurston was a pupil of Charles Draper, who had taken up the Clarinet Concerto after its original dedicatee Richard Mühlfeld refused to play it. Draper and Oscar Street were rewarded with the dedication of Stanford’s Clarinet Sonata (1911). There was a slight delay before the work was performed in 1916 and published in 1918 but thereafter the dearth of good romantic clarinet sonatas ensured that this was one Stanford work that never fell entirely out of sight. The central movement, a moving “Caoine”, has always been recognized as one of Stanford’s finest, and most obviously Irish, creations. Opinion has been divided as to whether the outer movements are merely efficient Brahms clones or something more. I played the work with a clarinettist in my university days and I have never felt it lacks either emotional engagement or personality. It is necessary to seek out the enchanted Celtic atmosphere and the leprechaun humour with limpid tone and transparent textures, but it is there.

In the days when it was politically correct to perform a single movement of a sonata, the “Caoine” was sometimes heard alone. It entered the record catalogue many years before its companion movements in a 1937 Decca recording by Frederick Thurston. The first complete performance was presumably that by John Denman and Hazel Vivienne, issued in 1971 on the short-lived Revolution label. I never bought this but I recall that in 1974 the best the BBC could manage as a tribute to Stanford on the 50th anniversary of his death was the Second Cello Sonata in a recording of their own by the lamented Thomas Igloi and the Denman/Vivienne Clarinet Sonata. My impression was that the recording was too cramped and boxy to enable the listener to judge whether the predominantly unsympathetic impression was partly the performer’s fault too. Denman re-recorded the work with his wife Paula Fan – see review by Rob Barnett. The first recording to circulate widely was presumably that by Thea King and Clifford Benson (Hyperion). My comparisons have been with this and Einar Jóhannesson/Philip Jenkins on Chandos. At least two versions that I don’t know sound promising: Gervase de Peyer/Gwyneth Pryor (GDP 1004) and Victoria Soames/John Flinders (Clarinet Classics). All these records present mixed programmes of British clarinet music.

One performance of those I know seems to me to get to the heart of the work – the Jóhannesson. King (07:45, 05:50, 06:00) and Plane (07:33, 05:40, 05:31) are not dissimilar in their approaches, while Jóhannesson is significantly broader (08:11, 07:09, 06:51). The music amply repays the performers’ faith in it, acquiring greater stature, range and depth. In particular, the “Caoine” is allowed its full weight of grief and tender regret. However, King and Plane do many lovely and loving things. Again, I find it hard to choose between them. Perhaps Frith has slightly more tonal allure than Benson – but I have the Hyperion on LP – while King is marginally smoother-toned. For sheer richness of tone Jóhannesson outdoes both.

Between the Clarinet Sonata and the Third Piano Trio, completed in April 1918, came the war. The score has the subtitle “Per aspera ad astra”, a direct reference to the Royal Flying Corps, and the dedication gives the initials of five officers who were killed in action. Two were sons of Alan Gray, Stanford’s successor as organist to Trinity College. Despite this the music, while highly serious in tone, is not elegiac or even sombre. In some of his later post-war works Stanford was inventive, even experimental, in his attitude to traditional musical forms. Here consolidation seems his main concern. The first movement is a succinct, taut piece which packs considerable punch, the second a noble, sometimes impassioned flowering. The finale is energetic and busy. As in the finales of the two previous trios, it is possible to feel a lowering of inspiration, perilously close to mere entertainment, though the secondary material makes some amends. Still, it’s enjoyable in its way. I wonder if a slower tempo might help? I’d call this “Allegro molto” rather than “Allegro maestoso e moderato” though the performance does not exactly sound rushed. This query apart, the Gould Piano Trio give an excellent account. Frith’s sensitivity to Stanford’s piano writing suggests Naxos should ask him to set down some of the solo works.

As I recently had the pleasure of discovering with the Third Piano Concerto (on Lyrita, see review by John France, a review by myself is also on the way), the post-war Stanford could sometimes take a richly inventive attitude towards musical form. The three Fantasies (1921-1922) – the third, for horn and string quartet, is available on Hyperion, see my review and those of Rob Barnett and Michael Cookson – take this a stage further. They are in a sense miniature Clarinet Quintets, each in three movements, played without a break, but the effect, however tightly controlled, is of free rhapsodizing. Nothing is known about the composition of these pieces. Jeremy Dibble has suggested they might have been written for student performance at the RCM (Charles Villiers Stanford: Man and Musician, Oxford 2002) but no evidence has come to light that they were actually performed there. In 1922 the young Frederick Thurston played Stanford’s Clarinet Concerto with the composer conducting the RCM orchestra. Quite often in Stanford’s late years the revival of an earlier work seems to have stimulated the composition of a new one. Performances of the First Violin Concerto and Second Piano Concerto during the war years by Margaret Harrison and Benno Moiseiwitsch respectively resulted in a new concerto for each instrument (1918-1919). Here too, there is no evidence that Stanford actually submitted the new works to these or other performers and they were certainly never played. The titles of the Fantasies have led to speculation that they may have been intended as entries for Cobbett’s “Phantasy” competition. Yet again, there seems to be no evidence that this was so. Stanford attached no opus numbers to them and does not appear to have sought publication. Was he uneasy about his relative departure from tradition?

The pieces only came to light in the 1990s and those for clarinet were first recorded by Thea King with the Britten Quartet (Hyperion). I had hitherto thought the Fantasy for horn the finest, but the heartfelt performance here of the central Andante of the first of those for clarinet makes me realize that King – elegant but cool – had missed its finer qualities. I now find it an enigmatic, but touching and compelling work.

I don’t doubt the strength of feeling behind the second Fantasy but I do feel it lacks thematic distinction, almost as if Stanford is determined to demonstrate that you can make something out of nothing. On the other hand, the sheer catchiness of the perky little motive that scampers over most of the outer sections may be irresistible for some – a curious anticipation of Malcolm Arnold. This time Thea King gives the Adagio its full weight of expression and I see no reason to prefer one performance over the other. Altogether, this useful grouping of Stanford’s three chamber works involving clarinet seems to be the most convenient way of getting them, though I think you should hear Jóhannesson in the Sonata.

The Second Piano Quartet op.133 (1913) is now the one large chamber piece with piano by Stanford still unrecorded, together with one or two CDs-worth of smaller pieces for violin and piano. While we still await String Quartets 3-8 and the Second String Quintet. Still, we’re getting on …

-- Christopher Howell, MusicWeb International

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 8570416

  • UPC: 747313041671

  • Label: Naxos

  • Composer: Charles Villiers Stanford

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Gould Piano Trio

  • Performer: Alice Neary, Benjamin Frith, David Adams, Lucy Gould, Mia Cooper, Robert Plane