Hyperion Records

Piano Concerto No 1 in G major, Op 59
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Stanford deliberately wanted his work to be, as he described in a letter to Francesco Berger, ‘of a bright and butterfly nature’ to contrast with the usual epic character of the late nineteenth-century concerto tradition. Unfortunately however, at the Concerto’s first performance at a Richter concert on 27 May 1895, it somewhat inappropriately followed Tchaikovsky’s ‘Pathétique’ Symphony (the work’s first hearing at a Richter concert) and the Vorspiel and Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (as well as ‘Elizabeth’s Greeting’ from Tannhäuser). The effect was, as Stanford explained later in another letter to Berger in January 1897, ‘like handing round a vol au vent immediately after two large helpings of Turkey and Corn Beef’. At the end of the year, the Concerto was given a more sympathetic hearing in a concert at the Singakademie in Berlin on 30 December. Stanford conducted the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in a programme of British music in which the Concerto featured along with his Fifth Symphony, several of his folk-song arrangements in his own orchestrations, Parry’s Overture to an Unwritten Tragedy and Mackenzie’s Overture Britannia. The Philharmonic Society also programmed the work in 1897, again with Borwick as soloist and Stanford conducting. This was probably the occasion of its best performance, for afterwards Stanford was recalled to the stage three times, such was the enthusiasm of the audience.

Though Stanford’s Concerto consists of the traditional three movements, the conception of the work is of two larger movements interspersed by a shorter ‘intermezzo’. The first movement, a shared sonata structure between soloist and orchestra, is memorable for its delicate touch, elegant piano writing and fragile orchestration, a style reminiscent of Saint-Saëns who, perhaps significantly, had played his exhilarating Concert Fantasy ‘Africa’ for piano and orchestra under Stanford in Cambridge during the Jubilee celebrations of the Cambridge University Musical Society on 12 June 1893. As a perfect foil to the refined atmosphere of the first movement, the Adagio molto is more reflective in mood and more overtly gesticulative for the soloist. Stanford also brings to this movement a high degree of structural sophistication. Although the design is outwardly ternary, the generative process of the movement is effectively a series of variations in which the opening sonorous melody, announced by the strings, is continually reworked. For the finale Stanford skilfully combines capriciousness and humour (characterized by the initial oblique tonal progression from B flat major to G) with an affecting lyricism. The spacious coda, a haunting memory of the mellifluous second-group material, is Stanford at his best.

This Concerto was never published, much to the composer’s regret, though it is clear from the engraver’s marks in the autograph manuscript that Boosey, his principal publisher at that time, had intended to print the full score. With the success of his Piano Concerto No 2 in C minor, published by Stainer and Bell in 1916 and widely played, his First Concerto was subsequently forgotten, even though, as this recording bears out, it testifies to all that is distinctive, eloquent and craftsmanly in Stanford's instrumental work.

from notes by Jeremy Dibble © 1995

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