> Parry, Stanford Piano Concertos Lane [RW]: Classical CD Reviews- Aug 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Hubert PARRY (1848-1918)
Piano Concerto in F sharp major (1880)

Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in G Major (1894)
The Romantic Piano Concerto – 12
Piers Lane (piano)
BBC Scottish SO/Martyn Brabbins
Rec. c.1993, City Hall, Glasgow


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These two works are rarely heard in the concert hall as is the hallmark of works included in Hyperion’s Romantic Piano Concerto series.

Although both composers were of similar age and grew up together their backgrounds were as different as their compositions.

Parry came from a family of distinction, was educated at Eton and went up to Oxford where he made use of the musical opportunities there. His university studies were Law and History and not music as one might have expected. In London, Parry acquired a friend in the pianist, Edward Dannreuther who advised him in his compositions for the piano.

Stanford came from a Dublin lawyer’s family, and won a Cambridge organ scholarship (Queen's College) followed by a classical scholarship. He was elected assistant conductor of the University Musical Society in 1871 and two years later he became its principal conductor, a post he was to hold for 20 years. Stanford was appointed organist at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1874 (a post he held until his resignation in 1892). A period of study took place at Leipzig (under Reinecke and Berlin) but I find this does not appear to have had any lasting influence on his compositions. As a teacher, he was an influential figure who taught a whole generation of students which included Arthur Benjamin, Frank Bridge, Butterworth, Howells and Vaughan Williams. His music is generally Irish scented.

Parry’s Concerto opens with a movement containing an unorthodox mix of tonalities. A ponderous through-composed second movement is languid, and not particularly memorable. (It has a mechanical ring to part of its structure that tends to labour an idea, giving little opportunity for piano virtuosity.) The work wakes up in the third movement with its jaunty main theme and strong focus on the piano. One can detect elements of Beethoven in the orchestral scoring. Saint-Saëns (in the third movement) may have provided a model for some of the pianist-led passages.

Stanford’s Concerto, by contrast, is lighter and more melodious, holding one’s attention from the outset with a lively rhythmic flow. There is more colour and the key is brighter than the Parry (G major). His thematic development carries one’s interest along with it and there are good virtuoso elements for the soloist to show off his skills. From the evidence here I would suspect that Stanford was as much at home with the piano as he was with the organ.

Piers Lane does not disappoint with his fine performance, nor Martyn Brabbins in his reading of the scores. For my liking, perhaps the Allegro maestoso and Maestoso movements of the Parry are taken a touch too slowly, but both pieces provide an enjoyable listening experience.

The notes focus more on the soloists who created the roles rather than the composers’ backgrounds. The recording is warm (without exaggerated reverberation) and adequately delivers the nuances in orchestration.

Raymond Walker

Chris Howell has also listened to this release

Try to think, before putting this on, what you might expect a piano concerto by Parry to sound like. I am willing to bet that whatever you came up with was very different from the disarmingly inconsequential opening you will then hear. You are also unlikely to have imagined that a concerto in F sharp major, at the end of its opening statement in the home key, will veer suddenly into G major and for much of its first movement behave like a concerto in G (with a recapitulation beginning in D). Perhaps you will also not have expected the reflective second subject, with its melancholy descending phrases and certain sequential writing later, as well as the dialogue with lush strings, to sound so much like Rachmaninov (who was eight years old when it was completed). On the other hand, you may have imagined a piece which sounds like Parry and I cannot truly say it does.

However, this is an early work, preceding any of the symphonies (Parry wrote it between the ages of 30 and 32 but he was a slow developer) and the large canvas is sometimes filled with more work-a-day passages which detract from this often impressive movement. And I must say that the opening of the second movement with its organist’s orchestration and undistinguished material matches only too well some people’s expectations of Parry. Several grandiose gestures from the piano cannot really obscure the fact that this movement is a non-starter. And the finale, in spite of rushing around very busily (and perhaps containing a few phrases, particularly in the orchestra, which actually sound like Parry) reaches little beyond its own tail, is far too long (13’ 45") and contains some really threadbare moments along the way.

So in the end this proves to be no more than a decent local product, even if the opening did seem to promise more. Jeremy Dibble’s notes are rich in information and dedicate more than double the space to Parry’s concerto than they do to the Stanford. Furthermore a note by John Farmer, Trustee of Lloyd’s Music Foundation gives a history of the preparation by Dr. Dibble of the performing edition of the Parry, telling us that requests for the use of the score have come from America and Moscow and anticipating "that the work will now find its place in the international concerto repertoire". So far (seven years on) this has not come about and I cannot really think it will. Attempts to export Parry abroad have never had much success, whether in his lifetime or since and in many ways he is a classic case of a local master.

Stanford, on the other hand, once walked the European stage and may do so again, even if it is only in his songs that he consistently matches the finest of his contemporaries. The opening to this concerto, with a charming theme on the wind heard against arpeggios on the piano, is entrancing and the first movement contains much elegant and attractive invention. Unfortunately it also contains some more strenuous passages which, if Stanford were challenged to say why he wrote them, I don’t see what he could have replied except "to get from A to B", thereby diluting the effect. The piano writing itself is effective in the delicate moments but, as is inclined to happen with a composer who plays the piano decently but is not a virtuoso, at climaxes he can think of nothing better to do than storm around in double octaves. I suspect it is ultimately rather unsatisfying to play, alternating light and poetic moments with others that don’t deliver all they are meant to.

The slow movement has more substance, a strong and dignified opening leading to much craggy and passionate development. The rewriting of the opening theme towards the end is a minor stroke of genius, reminding us that it is the simplest ideas which affect us most. The finale opens well but the secondary material is less distinguished, more like a transition to something more important (which doesn’t emerge) than a theme in itself. A poetic coda, just before the final pay-off, does much to redress the balance.

The Stanford concerto which really is a revelation (at least among those so far recorded) is the First Violin Concerto (Hyperion CDA67208) while the Clarinet Concerto (Helios CDH55101) has proved durable and rewarding. The First Piano Concerto is not quite on this level but it contains much of value, and its eclipse by the Second Concerto was not wholly just, for the present work perhaps has a finer slow movement.

It also raises a rather fascinating question. A few years back I published an article in British Music Society News (no. 75 of September 1997, p. 79 for those readers who have back numbers) entitled "Stanford and Musical Quotation". I return now to the subject in so far as it regards this concerto.

In 1889 Stanford had conducted a programme of his music with the Berlin Philharmonic, including the Fourth Symphony which was written for the occasion. Brahms, who was present, must surely have smiled when the first movement’s second subject material contained a reference to the first of his own Liebesliederwalzer. The First Piano Concerto was not specifically written for Berlin (it was premiered in London on 27th May 1895) but Stanford conducted it in a concert of British music in Berlin on 30th December 1895 and presumably that concert was already planned when he composed the piece, for the second subject of the first movement of this work also alludes to the Liebesliederwalzer. It is also fleetingly quoted towards the end of the finale. Furthermore, the finale of the Fourth Symphony had a theme which was basically a rising scale. Now, without the other quotation, I would not make much of the fact that the second subject of the finale of the First Piano Concerto is also based on a rising scale, since music is built on scales and it is phrased and barred so differently as to have a completely different effect. However, in the context, and bearing in mind that it is at one point juxtaposed with the Liebesliederwalzer theme, I have little doubt that this is a further intentional cross-reference.

Just what we are to make of this is not clear. Obviously, the single works can be perfectly well enjoyed without knowledge of the quotations. At one level, Stanford was apparently amusing himself by cross-referencing his music in a way that only he himself and a few close friends would notice. On the other hand, these references do sometimes lend point to the music when one has ferreted them out. Somehow this concerto took on a slightly different meaning for me when I had recognised the quotations. And this raises the question that Stanford’s work – of which we after all still know only the tip of the iceberg – maybe be cross-referenced to an extent we cannot imagine.

The performances seem excellent and the recording good, if more mellow than brilliant and at a slightly low level.

Christopher Howell



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