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Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
38 Preludes from the two Sets of 24 Preludes in all the keys, Opp.163 and 179
Sam Haywood (piano)
rec. June 2016, Saint Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, London HYPERION CDA68183 [69:41]
Church musicians claim Charles Stanford as their own. Organists and clarinettists recognise the significant contributions he made to the repertory of their respective instruments. When orchestral and chamber musicians encounter his music, they usually register surprise that such fine music has been neglected so long. But pianists have never really embraced the piano works of Charles Villiers Stanford, and few would regard him among the important early 20th century British composers for their instrument. Certainly the two dozen or so works listed in Grove (often shown as unpublished or with queries about their origin) do not seem to indicate a composer with a feel for the instrument beyond its value as an educational tool.
Yet from the very first track of this absolutely sumptuous disc, we are clearly in the presence of a masterful composer. His instinctive appreciation of form, structure and harmony—characteristics which inform his entire output—is eclipsed by a powerful sense of the full sonoric potential of the piano. It is fun to identify influences: Rachmaninov, Chopin and Liszt figure frequently, Beethoven seems to breathe down the neck of Prelude No. 36 in F minor, while Brahms, perhaps surprisingly, is rarely to be found. Even so, Stanford is very much his own man. He designs tightly constructed essays in all the keys twice over and never for a moment sounds as if this was more an academic exercise than an outpouring of well-controlled inspiration.
There are 38 Preludes here, but 39 tracks: Prelude No. 41 is played twice. That means 10 have been omitted, and with an average playing time of around 1:47, at a squeeze they could have gone the whole hog and included all 48. One wonders why the cut-off point was 38. No matter. What we do have are 38 absolute gems, in which Stanford explores pianistic sonorities with a deft hand. An almost instantaneous character defines each of these pieces. Some have subtitles to go with their tempo indications. The last of them is appropriately subtitled “Addio”. Some clearly have a pictorial feel (No. 32 in E flat minor seems, from its rippling opening figure through its very turbulent later passages, to depict flowing water). Several pieces reveal Stanford’s confident handling of counterpoint. No. 37 in G flat major is a splendid Fugue. At the other end of the scale, No. 38 in F sharp minor is a cleverly constructed exercise over a simple four-note descending figure, while No. 22 in B flat minor is a solemn funeral march in memory of Maurice Gray, son of Alan Gray, Stanford’s colleague at Trinity College, Cambridge. On a lighter note, No. 15 in G, a cheeky Allegretto, bounces over a whole range of unexpected keys.
It would be pointless to identify my favourites. Suffice it to say that from the opening track (Prelude No. 21 in B flat major, sub-titled “Carillons”) we are clearly in the presence both of very fine music and exceptionally fine playing. I must express my personal fondness for Sam Haywood’s rich and gloriously full-blooded tone, with the depth of the piano, superbly captured in this recording. It adds real substance to music, which may be miniature in physical size but is gigantic in artistic stature.