Christopher Howell plays Stanford’s complete piano works: Vols 1 & 2

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COMPOSERS: Stanford
LABELS: Sheva
ALBUM TITLE: Stanford
WORKS: Complete piano works, Vols 1 & 2
PERFORMER: Christopher Howell (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: Sheva SH 115 & SH 125

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Forty-eight preludes, 12 sketches, 10 dances, nine waltzes, five caprices, three fancies, one toccata: what do we have here, another Chopin? Hardly that, though Stanford’s piano output, from the 1870s to the early 1920s and written for concert or educational use (or the hazy area inbetween), reveals this stalwart composer as a committed student of keyboard literature. Brahms haunts some of the earliest works; Schumann is another friendly ghost. Bach trickles in from time to time, along with Baroque dance forms. We also get Irish jigs, and a quizzical treatment of harmony that reveals Stanford as a less conservative figure than his usual place in British music suggests.

Yet even when Stanford is at his most inspired – here in the waltzes or some of the preludes – he still needs a helping hand from the performer. And the chief regret in these instalments of a planned three-part piano survey is that Christopher Howell, for all his dedication, only goes so far toward infusing the notes with the necessary poetry, whimsy or grandeur. He’s clean and exact, but offers relatively little variety of touch. Stolidity is just round the corner. The airless Italian studio recordings point the same way, draining from his Imperial Bösendorfer much of resonance and natural magic.

Nonetheless, with the bulk of this repertoire recorded for the first time, the volumes may still be essential for any dedicated follower of Stanford. The sketches, ‘song tunes’ and other educational fare contain pieces fusty and trivial, yet Stanford still springs surprises that make you glad you’re listening; a recurring phenomenon too in the grandly conceived sets of 24 preludes in all the keys, presented in the order ordained in Bach’s ‘48’. In his scholarly notes, Howell suggests that the Op. 163 set, finished in September 1918, could be seen as the composer’s ‘war diary’; it’s certainly a cycle where dark clouds keep rolling in. He’s also sensible enough to ponder whether Stanford’s piano sets are best experienced whole or piecemeal. Each listener may have a different opinion as the 135 tracks of these CDs roll on.

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Geoff Brown