For many, by the early 1920s, Sir Charles Villiers Stanford was the grand old man of English music. For some, however, he was a relic of a Victorian past whose publication of two sets of 24 Preludes, 39 of which are recorded here, must have confirmed that very suspicion. With his ‘old-fashioned’ music, Stanford honours the mighty ‘48’ of his hero JS Bach, but with stylistic nods to Chopin and Saint-Saëns – in other words, the polar opposite of the lions of the day: men like Ravel and Bartók.
Not that Stanford cared. Hard up in the aftermath of the Great War, he needed the kind of income that came from the keen amateur market, and many of these miniatures would have appealed to professionals and the less-skilled alike. But are they any good? Brisbane-born British pianist Sam Haywood thinks so, and I think so too. Had they been written 40 years earlier, they would almost certainly have been taken up more enthusiastically.
Rather than travel linearly from No 1 to No 48, Haywood roams at will, finding connections and resonances that build a satisfyingly varied recital. He begins among the Flats and the Minors, launching his disc with Stanford’s grandly English Carillon (No 21 in B Flat), a thoroughly memorable piece with a nod to Bach and more than a few to Anglican bell ringers. He then slips into E Flat Minor for No 8, one of the mistier preludes – impressionistic, yes, but more late Liszt than early Debussy. Between these twin poles of tradition and Stanford’s idea of modern lie the rest of these works, perplexing only in their refusal to toe any one stylistic line.
Thus we find gossamer Mendelssohnian lightness in No 32 in E Flat Minor, its belly stuffed with Chopin, but Russian influences in the Bachian No 36 in F Minor. No 38 in F Sharp Minor with its doleful basso ostinato could even be by that other great conservative, Rachmaninov. A highlight is No 22 in B Flat Minor (an ‘In Memoriam’) with its echoes of Chopin’s famous Funeral March.
There are dances and marches too – No 45 in B Flat is a bit of both – while Stanford’s beloved Irish folk rears its head in No 20 in A Minor and the more reflectively Celtic-infused No 43 in A Major. The jaunty No 12 in F Minor is laced with ‘Down Among The Dead Men’ bonhomie, while there is a whole sub-group categorised by ancient terms like Gavotte, Sarabande and Musette.
Fine pianist that he is, Haywood is a superb guide. He’s masterly throughout, his playing beautifully weighted, clean and imaginative – in short, just what this music needs to lift it off the page. With Hyperion’s piano sound wonderfully natural, this lyrical, well-filled CD amply repays repeated listening.