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If lyricism is the controlling feature of the opening movement, then structural sophistication is the distinctive factor of the slow movement which builds a monothematic design from its opening three-note cell (A–B–C#), itself derived from the initial piano gesture of the first movement. Again one can feel the shadow of Schumann in the simple thematic strands of the melody, but this time what appears to be insignificant is in fact highly complex. Stanford’s seamless sonata construction gives the impression of a free form, and his manipulation of other features within the theme—the interrupted cadence on to VI (which quite magically gives rise to the development’s embarkation in D major) and the dark Neapolitan colouring—is masterly.
As light relief, the scherzo is a cheerful, spirited affair, full of contrapuntal dexterity, its main thematic material being a transformation of the slow-movement melody. To contrast with the energetic demeanour of the scherzo, the sonata-rondo finale is more earnest. The rather Brahmsian rondo idea, cast in A minor, projects a mood of disquiet, the portent of which is only lifted by the edifying second subject in C major, richly presented by the piano. A minor and the rondo theme return briefly but are soon dispelled by a passionate developmental paragraph in which the second subject reaches new heights of emotional fervour. As if spurred on by a new sense of optimism the recapitulation of the rondo passes quickly into A major, quitting for ever the pensive sobriety of the minor and lending a sense of invigorating well-being to the rest of the movement.
from notes by Jeremy Dibble © 1999