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Five Characteristic Pieces, Op 93

completed on 1 February 1905

The Five Characteristic Pieces for violin and piano, Op 93, were completed on 1 February 1905 and were, one assumes, written for the same lucrative market as the Irish Fantasies. These pieces, however, exhibit a greater technical sophistication in terms of design which belies their miniature conception. The ‘Cavatina and Scherzino’ is effectively a reverse form of the ‘Scherzo and Trio’ model in that it is the lyrical episodes that flank a central scherzo rather than the usual converse arrangement. For the ‘Cavatina’, Stanford relies on a three-part texture: a self-developing melody in the violin (deftly avoiding regular periodicity with its three-bar phrases), a gently undulating quaver movement in the right hand of the piano, and a simple interjecting bass line to punctuate each phrase. The euphony of this section is broken by the ‘Scherzino’ in the mediant minor, whose unsettling rhythmical agitation is calmed only by a more voluptuous restatement of the opening paragraph. After the F major of the ‘Cavatina’, the central three movements, ‘Capriccio’, ‘In a gondola’ and ‘Arabesques’ are all set in minor keys. The first of them, the ‘Capriccio’, takes up the A minor of the ‘Scherzino’ but this time in a delicious Mendelssohnian style of ‘will o’ the wisp’ in the true manner of a scherzo. Mendelssohn’s idiom of the ‘song without words’ (in particular the movements entitled ‘Gondellied’ of Opp 19, 30, 38 and 62) inhabits ‘In a gondola’, cast in a dolorous D minor. Like the ‘Capriccio’ before it, the movement depends on the fluctuation of minor and major modes to delineate its tripartite structure, though for its conclusion Stanford gives us a sweet memory of the central episode in D major, replete with enchanting Lydian inflections and the most delicate of conclusions on the violin’s natural harmonics. A further step flatwards, to G minor, brings us to another scherzo. ‘Arabesques’, so named because of its elaborate curvilinear melody, is a miniature sonata and shows considerable inventiveness in the way both original and augmented forms of the opening material are deployed in an engaging dialogue between violin and piano. As a postscript to the previous four pieces, ‘L’Envoi’ provides the most intimate of glimpses into a more introspective world. There are many skilful touches about this enchanting piece. Stanford’s return to the major (after three pieces in the minor) provides a telling contrast, as does the choice of A major which serves as effective complement to the A minor of the ‘Scherzino’ and ‘Capriccio’. But perhaps most subtle is the tranquil secondary material in B major which seems to hint at the ‘Cavatina’ in the piano figuration. This remains only a vague allusion, but in the final bars the opening strains of the ‘Cavatina’ do indeed materialize, bringing us full circle. This time, however, its song-like innocence is transformed into one of melancholy as its two melodic phrases are answered by the violin’s tearful motif. Such a gesture suggests perhaps that throughout the five pieces as a whole we have been witness to an unwritten background narrative, too personal to intimate.

from notes by Jeremy Dibble © 1999


Stanford: Music for violin and piano

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