First Symphony ‘The Seasons - An English Year’ CD Review by Ivan Moody


© Ivan Moody


October 2012

The name of Patric Standford is one that will most certainly be known to anyone who has an interest in contemporary music in Britain. What is a great pity is that this is likely to be because of his work as a teacher or writer (important though his contribution in these two areas has been) rather than as composer, for his work has been shamefully neglected in his native country. All credit, then, to the British Music Society for recording these three substantial scores and offering an introduction to Standford¹s output that cannot, I hope, but encourage further investigation into, and performances of, his oeuvre.

Standford¹s teachers included Rubbra and Lutoslawski, surely a unique historical combination, and his own music somehow alchemically transmits elements of both. There is a true Englishness about his language, in its generously rhapsodic melodic content especially, but there is also a harder edge, a delight in colour and incisive dissonance that makes it clear how much he absorbed from his Polish experience (and, indeed, his earlier study of dodecaphony). This combination is particularly evident, I think, in the Cello Concerto, perhaps especially in the extraordinary poise of the third movement. This is a dark and powerful work, built on the soprano solo 'Ich habt nun Traurigkeit¹ from Brahms¹s German Requiem, fully exploring the instrument¹s vast expressive range and demonstrating brilliantly Standford¹s mastery of the orchestra. Raphael Wallfisch, who performed it in a broadcast in 1979, is the ideal soloist, his tone rich but never too lush, in keeping with the often anguished, searching quality of this work.

The First Symphony (1972) is a memorial for Sir John Barbirolli, an early inspiration for Standford, and one can easily imagine the great man responding to the work¹s gripping melodic breadth and harmonic urgency. The work is a portrayal of the English seasons, and the dynamic contrasts between the work¹s movements cause one to speculate about a clarity in the change from season to season in the early 1970s that one may perhaps now not notice in quite the same way. It is, indeed, an intensely dramatic, and, thereby, intensely symphonic work. The yearning intensity of the dissonant second movement, for strings alone, is surely unique in British music ­ and one wonders who else would have thought of portraying the seasons in quite this way; it¹s like watching heavy thunderclouds accumulate and waiting for them to burst. Equally impressive, in an entirely different way, is the final movement, an involving depiction of the struggle against the cold in the form of a series of variations on a theme from Standford¹s monumental Christus-Requiem, written during the same period, offering particular opportunity for the composer to demonstrate his coloristic skills as part of the dramatic discourse.

If I find the Prelude to a Fantasy less engaging, though no less beautifully written (especially the evanescent final minutes), than the concerto and symphony recorded here, I suspect that it is because the other two works left me thirsting for more of Standford¹s large-scale journeys. Nevertheless, it is a lovely makeweight to this hugely significant collection. My fervent hope is that it will signal the beginning of a long-overdue Standford revival in concert and on disc. These incisive and searching performances by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under David Lloyd-Jones surely point the way.