These are the first substantial works by Patric Standford that I have encountered. There is a considerable amount of information about him and his music on the website of his publishers, Edition Peters, who have published all three works here recorded. Readers are also referred to a review by my colleague, Gary Higginson, of a CD that included Standford’s The Prayer of Saint Francis. In that review Gary, a sometime pupil of Standford, tells us quite a bit about the composer as well as commenting on the work in question. Some time ago, our editor, Rob Barnett, was also most enthusiastic about some other works by Standford though, sadly, the pieces in question aren’t commercially available. Since Gary and Rob wrote those articles Standford’s A Christmas Carol Symphony has appeared on disc but so far as I know that’s it as far as representation of his music on disc is concerned.
From the good biographical note in the booklet by John Talbot I learned that Standford’s teachers have included Rubbra, Malipiero and Lutoslawski. On the surface I’d say there’s least evidence of Rubbra’s influence in the music on this disc but pupils shouldn’t be mere imitators of their teachers and Patric Standford is, without doubt, his own man.
As Standford makes clear in a booklet note on the music, first symphonies often follow several false starts – one thinks of Brahms, of whom more anon – and his own First Symphony was at least his third attempt in the genre. It sounds as if the work, which was completed in 1972, is written for a fairly large orchestra including a sizeable percussion section. Cast in four movements, each bears the name of one of the four seasons. We start with ‘Spring’ and anyone whose idea of the English Spring is a gentle pastorale is in for a shock. Standford’s Spring bursts out with an eruption of energy – one is almost put in mind of the sudden strength of the Russian Spring, though not as violently as depicted by Stravinsky. There’s a confident, bounding figure at the very start, which crops up several times during the course of the movement. This is vigorous, big music, confident in its voice and strongly scored for the orchestra. The writing is often busy yet the textures never sound overloaded. There’s clarity in the writing and the orchestration is always interesting.
The slow movement, ‘Summer’, is for strings alone and, in the composer’s words, “represents a strongly optimistic and dynamic memory of [Sir John] Barbirolli” – over the years Standford had attended many of Barbirolli’s Hallé concerts in his native Sheffield. Isn’t it strange how we all hear things differently? The composer talks of “summer warmth” in this movement yet I don’t get that at all. I find the music serious and, at times, astringent. The music, which exploits the resources of a string orchestra very effectively, doesn’t sound very English to my ears. I don’t find the language very warm, which is not to say that I don’t admire the music. The scherzo, which depicts ‘Autumn’, contains glistening, fleeting music. Standford talks of “weak sunlight shimmering on beads of rain covering vast spider webs, the sighing of falling leaves, and evening lamplight reflected from damp pavements.” Here I do get at least some of what the composer mentions. The orchestral writing is ever-shifting and ingenious. The finale, a ‘Winter Epilogue’ “depicts a winter that vigorously fights against the cold with bursts of energy”. Fittingly, the scoring is often chilly and the writing is frequently powerful.
This symphony may have been a long time in the making but it represents a confident, often arresting, first essay in the genre. Having found his symphonic voice Standford has gone on to write several more. However, so far as I can see, his 1974 Cello Concerto remains to date his only full-scale concerto. It is played here by its dedicatee, Raphael Wallfisch, who is playing a slightly revised version of the original score. The work was conceived while Standford and his wife were spending the summer of 1974 in Baden-Baden as guests of the Brahms-Gesellschaft and staying in part of the very house where Brahms spent each summer between 1864 and 1873. The resulting concerto is a homage to Brahms and is built around the fifth movement – ‘Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit’ – of the German Requiem.
The first of the three movements opens with an impassioned, long-breathed theme for the soloist over a series of pounding low B flats in the orchestra. This initial episode sets the tone for much of what is to follow in the movement. It’s searching music and I found it far from easy to listen to or absorb. That’s not a criticism, by the way, rather it’s an indication of how intellectually challenging the music is; to my ears it’s at least restless, if not troubled. Standford describes the second movement as “a flight of midsummer madness”. He also says that the music is “largely in animated pianissimo”. From reading that, and picking up a reference to Mendelssohn in the note, I’d expected a gossamer-light movement but that’s not really what we get. There’s an awful lot of fast, spiky writing for both soloists and orchestra, which I must admit I don’t find too congenial but the music never really seems to dip below mf at best. It’s possible that the otherwise exemplary recording is too close, though I don’t think so. There is some lightness in the music but, as I hear it, the tone is mainly serious in a way that seems to me to be at variance with any thoughts of Mendelssohn.
The finale opens with an extended passage for the soloist, which has the character of a cadenza though parts of it are accompanied. It’s in this movement that the references to the Brahms Requiem are most pronounced – or, put another way, I’ve struggled to discern any references in the preceding movements. Here, however, Standford does something rather interesting. As he puts it he “merges quotations [from the Brahms fifth movement] … into its own texture.” It’s intriguing how the Brahms quotes drift into and out of the foreground. In fact it occurred to me while listening that if I took out my score of the Brahms I might find that Standford had grafted his own music straight onto the skeleton of the Brahms movement – I didn’t do that exercise, by the way and I’m sure he hasn’t done that though the Brahms quotes are often so extensive as to give that impression. Perhaps it’s the strong – and familiar – Brahms melodic foundation that makes me like this movement most of the three but I like to think it’s more a case of admiration for the concept and the cleverness with which it’s executed.
The disc concludes with The Naiades, originally a movement from Standford’s Second Symphony (1980). The Naiades were mythological water nymphs. Appropriately, therefore, the music is extremely light and airy. The scoring is consistently transparent and the music never ceases to move – it’s fast and busy throughout; it’s almost a moto perpetuo. This is sheer delight. The writing – and the highly accomplished orchestration - is a prodigious feat of sustained delicacy and dexterity. It’s a highly engaging piece and here there is a lightness both of touch and tone that is truly Mendelssohnian. If I’m absolutely honest I like this side of Patric Standford’s musical personality while I respect the side that’s on display in the Cello Concerto.
It’s very good that these pieces have been made available on disc for they are well worth investigating. So far as I can tell – the music is all new to me – Standford’s music has been extremely well served by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and that doughty champion of unfamiliar British music, David Lloyd-Jones. The sound quality is extremely good.