Another valuable mining by Naxos of the golden seams of the British Music Society archives. All the more so when one looks through the current catalogue for other recordings of Patric Standford's work. Aside from his Christmas Carol Symphony
on Naxos (review
) and the Ballet Suite Celestial Fire
this new disc seems to complete his orchestral recorded catalogue. Greatly enjoyable though those two other works are they give the listener just one aspect of the composer's output - rather like judging Elgar on the strength of his Wand of Youth
Suites alone. In one fell swoop this excellent disc demonstrates just what an impressive and powerful composer Standford was. Was, because sadly he died rather suddenly in April 2014 (obituary
) - not before this recording had been released in its original BMS format but before it could benefit from the wider global distribution and lower price-point that Naxos can offer.
Given the dearth of music by Standford that the curious listener can track down it is all the more valuable that the three works presented here are as impressive and as diverse as they are. The disc opens with his Symphony No.1
subtitled ''The Seasons - An English Year". In the English-only liner Standford contributes a very useful and informative personal note outlining the genesis of the work and how the music ties into the implicitly pictorial title. I have enjoyed listening to this work very much but my one observation would be that I suspect the title might dissuade some listeners from engaging with it. On face value the title implies some cosy-fireside-chat of a work but the reality is an altogether grittier more interesting and challenging piece. If one is looking for season-like allusion then the opening Allegro deciso risoluto
is the movement that seems to 'fit' its nominal season. This is a blustery, tempestuous Spring with nature in full flood. From the dynamic thrusting opening all the qualities of the music and indeed this recording are evident. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra are in very good form under David Lloyd-Jones - confident and dynamic in this far from simple music. Likewise the familiar technical team of Andrew Walton producer and Mike Clements engineer have caught the orchestra extremely well in the resonant warmth of the Henry Wood Hall Glasgow. Standford's Spring occupies the same elemental landscape as Frank Bridge's Enter Spring
- an irrepressible force. I was interested to read in Standford's own liner-note his fascination with the musical/technical challenge of "keeping the pulse steady and the momentum airborne". So even when the obviously driving energy of the movement temporarily subsides around 5:00 there is still a sense of a pulse compelling the music forward. Standford's orchestration is especially effective as well in all three works. Tricky to pull off because he often creates a flickering instrumental patchwork with fragments thrown around the orchestra which only cohere into a whole from the perspective of the listener. Again credit to conductor and orchestra for succeeding with this time and again.
Although Standford had abortively written early 'student' symphonies the impulse to write his first one came from a separate piece for strings written as a memorial for Sir John Barbirolli whose Sheffield concerts with the Halle Orchestra Standford had attended as a child. I listened to the disc before reading the note - as is my preference with unfamiliar music - and my strong impression was that this movement - included in the Symphony as 'Summer' - would work as a stand-alone piece. Certainly it occupies a substantially different landscape than the other sections and not just because of the strings-only instrumentation. As a piece of music I think it is very fine - powerfully sustained and beautifully conceived for strings. As a piece representing an English Summer I struggle to find any analogy at all. If I was trying to find a climatic/topographical description for the music I would have to say a rather desolate and arid landscape - yet Standford describes it as representing "a strongly optimistic and dynamic memory of Barbirolli" and since it's his music he should know best so I defer to his description.
The third movement 'Autumn' is another scherzo-like section. Again, Standford's brilliance as an orchestrator is to the fore with scurrying woodwind and slippery strings evoking - much more easily - eddying mists and wind. Usually there is nothing I like more than a programme but again I feel this transcends the need for anything quite so literal. Perhaps because his music is in my mind with his recent passing - but in this movement I heard echoes of John McCabe's brilliant Chagall Windows
- although important to point out that the Standford predates that work by a good two years. The work finished with 'Winter Epilogue' which is five variants on a chorale theme Standford wrote originally for his Christus Requiem
. My instinct is to treat this as absolute music - the essentially slow pulse allowing the music to unwind steadily and very expressively towards a quiet close shattered by some quite unexpected stabbing chords. More beautifully poised playing from the RSNO underlines the sense of finality and closure.
Of equally impressive stature is the Cello Concerto
of 1974. Completing the roster of excellence is the predictably fine contribution of cellist Raphael Wallfisch. He is the work's dedicatee and gave it its first broadcast performance in 1979. Is there another living performer who has done so much to promote his nation's music - and beyond - on their chosen instrument? Wallfisch's discography is vast yet every recording finds him in technically superb form and more to the point giving performances of remarkable insight and intelligence. So it proves here. Standford's inspiration this time sprang from a stay at the apartment in Baden-Baden where Brahms spent his summer months. As a consequence he drew on motifs from the fifth movement of Brahms' German Requiem
and built them into the outer sections of the work. The quotation is overtly recognisable in the work's finale but in the opening he has transformed the soprano soloist's melody into the cello part. Again the very opening of the work is strikingly powerful. With no preparatory material the orchestra dives in with hammered low B flats an insistent pedal for a full ninety seconds - an orchestral piano part an important addition throughout - and the soloist sings an impassioned song. Excellent engineering ensures an ideal balance between the solo and tutti orchestral lines. This movement is marked Adagio
with the crucial qualifier - ma con moto
, as in the symphony there is a sure sense that somewhere in the work's substructure there is a steady heartbeat ensuring that whatever the basic tempo the music is perpetually drawn forward. The central molto vivace
is a tour de force
aptly described by Standford as "largely [an] animated pianissimo: a flight of midsummer madness which I imagine Mendelssohn might achieve more effectively were he still here." In the self-deprecating "more effectively" Standford does himself an injustice - this is a very impressive movement indeed all flickering half-lights and shadows. Not at all easy for the performers to bring off - one missed or mis-judged entry and the whole edifice collapses.
The musical language of the whole disc to this point has been clearly tonal but with a reasonably high level of dissonance. The balm of the emergence of the Brahms quotations in fairly unadulterated form in the concerto's finale has a powerful impact simply because it introduces consonance where previously we had tangy dissonance. In turn they come after a cadenza-like sequence for the cello which is darkly questioning and anguished [track 7 3:30]. It makes for a touchingly tender passage with woodwind's Romantic harmony trying to console the despairing cello whilst in the background the low repeating pedal notes return on the timpani. Technically it is an impressive passage, bringing together all the material from earlier in the work, but it is emotionally cathartic too. Wallfisch is particularly impressive here finding an ideal balance between poise and passion. The sophisticated layers of Standford's orchestration are beautifully revealed and revelled in by all concerned. I like the rather ambiguous ending as it evaporates into ethereal silence. The last few years have been rather good for the re-discovery and reassessment of British cello concerti; Lyrita
's recent offering of Simpson, Joubert and Christopher Wright and Dutton reviving a Cyril Scott
score along with works elsewhere by Havergal Brian, Alan Bush
all proving that the repertoire for concerted works for cello by British composers was a lot more than 'just' the Elgar, Walton and Britten. The common factor? - all recordings by Raphael Wallfisch - and every single one well worth hearing. To this esteemed list the Patric Standford concerto is a very worthy addition.
If that were not enough, the disc concludes with a real orchestral showpiece. It's a proper scherzo for orchestra that would adorn any concert programme. Where the earlier symphony included a work conceived separately here the process is reversed. The Prelude to a Fantasy The Naiades
started life as a movement in Standford's Second Symphony. What the liner does not make clear is if it can still be found as part of the larger work or whether Standford replaced it with an alternative movement. Enough to say that it is a literally brilliant work. The orchestration glitters and twinkles whilst the rhythms twist with agile dexterity. I really like Standford's extended use of muted trumpets - something rarely encountered except for the odd bar or two. Standford describes the Naiades as "minor deities, ever dancing and restless like children" and this is exactly
how the music sounds - good naturedly energetic and questing - beautifully realised with flecks of harp and vibraphone intertwining with chattering string and wind. All in all a hugely enjoyable bonne bouche
to conclude an already impressive recital.
Without a shadow of doubt this disc significantly enhances Standford's posthumous reputation. I would love to think it might simply be the first in a series of discs from the same artists and production team covering more of his major works including the remaining symphonies and the Christus Requiem
Previous review (BMS release): John Quinn