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Stanford retained an enthusiasm for the music of Bach throughout his life, and the two sets of ‘Twenty-four Preludes in all the keys for pianoforte’ are a clear homage to JSB’s own ‘48’. Sam Haywood, making his second recording for Hyperion, performs his own selection.
Hyperion Records and Sam Haywood are exceedingly grateful to Lark Group Limited for their support of this recording. More information is available on their website www.larkinsurance.co.uk.
Stanford retained a fascination for J S Bach throughout his life. He was familiar with the ‘48’ as a boy in Dublin, and his study of Bach’s music was encouraged by his teachers there and by Reinecke in Leipzig in the 1870s. Sterndale Bennett, an early mentor at Cambridge University, had instigated the first English performance of the St Matthew Passion in April 1854, and his Bach-inspired 30 Preludes and Lessons, Op 30, and Toccata, Op 38, almost certainly informed Stanford’s early Suite, Op 2, and Toccata, Op 3. Stanford’s principal mentor, Joseph Joachim, well known for his promotion of the unaccompanied music for violin (especially the Chaconne in D minor), also happily endorsed Stanford’s enthusiasm as Bach’s music became a regular fixture of choral, orchestral and chamber concerts for the Cambridge University Music Society, an association enshrined in Stanford’s Suite for violin, Op 32, written specially for Joachim in 1889. And, of course, Bach’s music formed a central part of Stanford’s conductorship of the Bach Choir between 1886 and 1902.
Stanford completed his two sets of Twenty-four Preludes in all the keys for pianoforte, Opp 163 & 179, in September 1918 and c1921 respectively, and the numbering of the preludes—I to XLVIII—shows that they were evidently conceived in two ‘books’ as a set of forty-eight (on this recording Nos II, VII, XI, XIII, XIX, XXV, XXIX, XXXI, XL and XLVI are omitted) in further emulation of Bach. Both were published by Swan & Co in London and appeared in the publisher’s ‘Magnus’ Piano Albums. The preludes were also divided into seven tranches (also numbered consecutively); Op 163 was published in three series of eight preludes, Op 179, dedicated to his former pupil and renowned Bach pianist, Harold Samuel, in four series of six. What motivated Stanford to produce the music is unknown, but, after the First World War, he was acutely short of money and looked for any opportunity to earn additional royalties and fees from composition, especially through new music for the violinist, organist and pianist where earnings were most abundant. These forty-eight preludes, with their variety and range of technical challenges, and with their appeal not only to the professional performer but also to the enthusiastic amateur, were therefore intended as an important addition to his declining income.
Very much in the spirit of Bach’s preludes in the ‘48’, his own preludes each sought to explore a single idea or device and also followed the same pattern of tonalities which Bach devised for Das wohltemperierte Klavier. Some of them make clear reference to Bach and to baroque style forms. Aping an organ texture, No I in C major (track 13) significantly recalls several progressions from the first prelude to Book I of the ‘48’, but the movement is clearly also one that is preludial to the entire set of forty-eight preludes in that its wide-ranging harmonies can be mapped onto all the major tonalities of the cycle. Some of the preludes make close allusion to baroque dance forms that Bach used himself: No XLI in A flat major (track 23) is a quirky gavotte coupled with No XLII in G sharp minor (track 24), its accompanying musette; No XLIII in A major (track 17) a sarabande in grand style that has the air of a transcription by Busoni; and No XXXVIII in F sharp minor (track 5) a chaconne based on a descending tetrachord over which the accumulation of Stanford’s ‘variations’ forms an ingenious self-developing melody. No XXIII in B major (track 21) utilizes the baroque ‘En rondeau’ formulation commonly used by Bach and Couperin in their dance suites, though Stanford’s romantic interpretation is typically to base the rondo structure on an irregular theme which continually recurs in altered forms. Couched in the style of a ‘Humoresque’, No XXXVII in G flat major (track 3) is a fughetta, and No XVIII in G sharp minor (track 19) a fantastical toccata, while No VIII in E flat minor (entitled ‘Study’) (track 2) makes direct reference to the crossing-hand technique of the gigue from Bach’s Partita in B flat major, BWV825. This same contrapuntal pattern, without the hand-crossing, also forms the basis of much of No V in D major (track 35), though here Stanford’s motivic process is one of gradual distillation as is evident in the coda.
Moving on from the legacy of the eighteenth century, Stanford also included in his cycle a number of more typically nineteenth-century dances and style forms in which homage is paid to the work of other composers. There are insinuations of Schubert in the ‘Marche militaire’ of No XXXIII in E major (track 18), in the rather wistful waltzes of No XXVI in C minor (track 22) and No XXXIV in E minor (track 15), and in the ‘Ländler’ of No XVII in A flat major (track 37). The thicker texture of Brahms seems more immediate in the earnest, march-like strut of No XII in F minor (track 34), and the urbane style of Brahms’s Op 39 waltzes haunts the reflective contours of No X in E minor (track 29). Of a more romantic disposition are the abstract movements such as the two scherzi. The playful mood of No XIV in F sharp minor (track 36) is suggestive of Mendelssohn (not least his Scherzo a capriccio in the same key), while the grander No XXVII in D flat major (track 31) is more in the manner of a Lisztian burlesque in its more adventurous use of the piano’s compass and shifting tonalities. This capricious demeanour is also evident in the ‘Humoresque’ of No IX in E major (track 28) with its eccentric pauses and skittish theme; other ‘caprices’ can be identified in the bizarre No XX in A minor (track 16), characterized by its bubbling trills and disconcerting hemiolas, and the strangely distorted ‘Moment musical’ of No XXX in D minor (track 33).
The paradigm of Mendelssohn’s ‘song without words’ informs No XXIV in B minor (track 38) where a sustained, through-composed theme, played by the fourth and fifth fingers of the right hand, is accompanied by descending harp-like figurations. Other preludes clearly pay tribute to the piano music of Schumann, whom Stanford greatly admired and whose music influenced many of his early piano works. The ‘oom-pah’ ostinato of No XV in G major (track 12) calls to mind movements from the Davidsbündlertänze, Op 6, and the élan of No XXXIX in G major (track 14) has much in common rhythmically and metrically with the rondo theme from ‘Grillen’ in the Fantasiestücke, Op 12. The more introspective, lyrical side of Schumann can also be sensed in No VI in D minor (track 11), an introspective ‘Romance’ whose melancholic temperament cannot be assuaged, while No IV in C sharp minor (track 27) is reminiscent of Schumann’s love for the intermezzo. It is likely, too, that the source of inspiration behind the ‘alla caccia’ style of No XLV in B flat major (track 8) was probably the Waldszenen, Op 82. Stanford also paid his respects to other corners of the piano repertoire. The study in octaves of No XLIV in A minor (track 7), ‘to be played in one rush’ according to the composer’s instruction, owes its raison d’être to the finale of Chopin’s Sonata in B flat minor, Op 35. No XXXVI in F minor (track 9), a barcarolle, may owe its origins to Chopin, but its harmonic nuances suggest that Fauré, who established the genre as an individual mode of expression, may have been a more likely source; and Fauré may also have been behind the ‘impromptu’ style of No III in D flat major (track 26) which also shares a rich harmonic palette of subtle progressions and characteristic tonal divergences to the mediant, flat submediant and Neapolitan keys.
The remaining eight preludes on this recording explore less traditional genres. No XXXII in E flat minor (track 4) is an entrancing ‘rêverie’, redolent perhaps of early Debussy; No XXI in B flat major (track 1), subtitled by the composer ‘Carillons’, is an étude based on the pealing bell figure heard in the first bar. Three movements are intriguing studies on more unique musical devices. No XXXV in F major (track 10) is founded entirely on a tonic pedal over which Stanford builds a quasi-improvisation. The opening thematic idea of No XXVIII in C sharp minor (track 30) is founded on an irregular metrical pattern of 3/4–4/4–2/4, a feature which Stanford develops irregularly thoughout the piece until the original thematic material finds a degree of stability in the 4/4 metre of the closing bars. Irregular metre is also the focus of No XLVII in B major (track 20). Evoking the flavour of a French folksong, the prelude is characterized by a constantly fluctuating metre of 2/4 and 3/4 which continues largely unabated for the entire movement. The remaining three preludes discussed here have a touching personal significance for the composer. No XXII in B flat minor ‘In memoriam M G’ (track 6) is a funeral march written in memory of Maurice Gray, the second son of the organist Alan Gray (who was an assistant to Stanford while he was organist at Trinity College, Cambridge, and who succeeded him in 1892). Also commemorated in Stanford’s Piano Trio No 3, Op 158 (1918), Maurice Gray was killed in action 8 August 1918 at Beaucort-en-Santerre during the British army’s counter-offensive. His younger brother, Edward Jasper Gray (also commemorated in Stanford’s Trio), had died some five months earlier at Arras on 31 March, ten days after the major Ludendorff offensive had begun. Equally solemn is No XVI in G minor (track 32) which Stanford marked ‘Adagio (con Fantasia)’. Written in the style of an Irish lament or ‘Caoine’, it may well have been composed in memory of all those in Ireland who had died in combat. A most touching essay, the appearance of the synthetic folksong (one of Stanford’s own creations) at the prelude’s heart is a moment of great pathos before the ruminative lament once again impresses itself on the conclusion. A beautifully shaped miniature sonata movement, the final prelude, No XLVIII in B minor (track 39), is appropriately marked ‘Addio’. In one sense, of course, the prelude bids farewell to the lengthy cycle of individual character pieces, but in another it is the ‘envoi’ of a composer who undoubtedly lamented the drastic political changes going on around him (and particularly in Ireland, the land of his birth) as well as the passing of a cultural world in which he had once been a central figure.
Jeremy Dibble © 2017