Stanford: Symphonies no 2 and 5 / Lloyd-Jones

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If you bought the earlier issue, do not hesitate to add this disc to your shelves

Hot on the heels of the first volume of the projected Naxos Stanford symphony cycle (see review) comes Volume Two, which again features David Lloyd-Jones at the helm of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.

The Second symphony was premièred, under the composer’s baton, in Cambridge in 1882 and there’s a passing link with the subsequent première of the Fourth symphony in Berlin. In that latter concert Joseph Joachim was the soloist in Stanford’s Suite for Violin and Orchestra. Joachim also participated in the Cambridge concert of 1882, playing the Brahms concerto on that occasion. Following the first performance in 1882 there was another airing of the Second symphony at the Gloucester Three Choirs Festival in the following year. However, in his notes for Vernon Handley’s 1991 recording, Lewis Foreman states that he had been unable to trace any further performances until 1990, when the Ulster Orchestra gave it, presumably as a precursor to the Handley recording for Chandos.

The symphony bears the title ‘Elegiac’ and Stanford prefaced the score with four stanzas from Tennyson’s poem, In Memoriam. However, I’m bound to say that I find it hard to detect any elegiac tone in the music itself. The first movement is marked Allegro appassionato. It’s a vigorous movement in which one feels the music is moving forward pretty constantly, culminating in a dramatic coda.

The main theme of the second movement, a Largo espressivo, is rightly described by annotator Richard Whitehouse, as “both graceful and expressive.” This is rather lovely music, which consistently displays a singing quality. This is followed by a genuine scherzo. The outer sections of this quite short movement display a drive that is Beethoven-like. In between is encased a brief lyrical trio but it’s noticeable that even here the timpani maintain the rhythmic pulse underneath the music, albeit quietly, for much of the time.

The finale opens with an adagio introduction that has a decidedly Brahmsian feel. Once the main allegro is reached that section opens with some delightful wind writing after which the music surges along with no little purpose. This finale has genuine drive and momentum and it builds to a jubilant coda in which, once again, I hear the influence of Brahms.

The Fifth symphony dates from 1894 and Stanford drew his inspiration from two poems by John Milton (1608-1674). He inscribed several stanzas from each in the score and, helpfully, Naxos include these verses in the English version of the booklet notes.

The principal subject of the first movement, ushered in by the woodwind at 1:45, is rather jolly. However, there had been quite a degree of urgency to the brief introduction and this urgency remains as a kind of background presence underpinning the essential joviality of the movement as a whole. The music has constant vitality and is fresh and enjoyable to hear. For the second movement Stanford follows the precedent of Brahms by writing an intermezzo, which bears the Brahmsian indication Allegretto grazioso. Lewis Foreman described this movement in his note for the Chandos-Handley recording as “a gently pastoral minuet”. That’s not quite how it comes across in this present performance, however. Lloyd-Jones adopts a slightly faster speed than Handley – he takes 6:28 against Handley’s 6:56 – and thereby gives the music quite a different character. I wouldn’t presume to say which approach is better. To be truthful, I think both work in their own way though I have a marginal preference for the way the movement goes in Handley’s hands. The bottom line is that both conductors are successful in bringing out the genial character of the music.

The third movement, Andante molto tranquillo, was inspired by Il penseroso. Richard Whitehouse describes this movement as “searching” and I agree. It begins with some fine, expansive string writing, which is gradually enriched by the addition of woodwind and horns. This is Stanford at his noble, expansive best. At 3:47 Stanford introduces new material, with flute and clarinet appropriately to the fore as he responds to Milton’s lines about the nightingale, beginning “Sweet bird that shunn’st the noise of folly.” This material is developed for a while until, after a majestic passage for brass (around 6:00) the opening lyrical material returns, but this time in even richer guise and it’s with this that Stanford brings a most impressive movement to a close.

There’s a strange opening to the finale, featuring quiet, stabbing chords. At 0:33 a restless melody in dotted rhythm appears, first on the strings and then taken up by the winds but the music doesn’t really seem to get into its stride until about 1:20. As the movement unfolds the tone becomes more assertive though those stabbing chords keep cropping up. The last of Milton’s stanzas quoted by Stanford begins “There let the pealing organ blow” and Stanford does indeed add an organ to the orchestral palette (at 8:10) though its initial entry is quiet, just gently underpinning the orchestra. At 10:34 the full orchestra and organ intone a majestic chorale and one thinks that this is the Big Finish. Not so. The music winds down and Stanford brings the movement instead to a rich, luminous but quiet conclusion, which I find very satisfying and which aptly echoes Milton’s words:

Dissolve me into ecstasies, And bring all Heav’n before mine eyes.

It’s not easy to place these two symphonies. Neither is the equal of Elgar’s symphonies but they are far from negligible and these admirable performances under the convincing leadership of David Lloyd-Jones confirm that they do not deserve the neglect into which they have fallen. Lloyd-Jones obtains fine playing from the Bournemouth orchestra and, as with the previous issue in this series, they have been accorded warm yet detailed sound.

This is another distinguished instalment in this Stanford cycle. Vernon Handley’s pioneering set (Chandos) is most certainly not displaced but these Naxos recordings, and this latest one in particular, can stand proudly shoulder to shoulder beside them. Collectors who bought the earlier issue of the Fourth and Seventh symphonies should not hesitate to add this companion volume to their shelves. More please!

-- John Quinn, MusicWeb International

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 8570289

  • UPC: 747313028979

  • Label: Naxos

  • Composer: Charles Villiers Stanford

  • Conductor: David Lloyd-Jones

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra