May 31, 2007


Stanford: Symphonies Nos. 4 and 7. David Lloyd-Jones conducting the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Naxos. $8.99.

Roussel: Symphony No. 3; Bacchus et Ariane (complete ballet). Stéphane Denève conducting the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Naxos. $8.99.

      Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) is known today more for the music of his students, who included Frank Bridge and Ralph Vaughan Williams, than for his own. The first volume of Naxos’ planned presentation of all seven of Stanford’s symphonies shows why. Stanford was a composer of impeccable taste – perhaps too much so. There is an overlay of politeness in his symphonies, an unwillingness to shake up the form as Brahms and Schumann used it, that results in pleasant but uninspiring music. Symphony No. 4 in F was written in 1888 – the same year as Mahler’s First – and first played in early 1889. But while Mahler stormed the heights and created tremendous controversy with his expansive approach, Stanford had much more modest goals. The first movement is very melodious, solidly orchestrated, with nothing harmonically daring. The gently flowing second movement is labeled Intermezzo and is so far from a scherzo as to be almost a slow movement. It is thoughtful and mostly quiet, ending softly and leading directly into the designated slow movement, which is disjointed at first but then pulls together thematically and instrumentally. This is not deeply emotional music: it gets the Romantic gestures right without really conveying strong feeling – it is pretty, not profound. The finale flows well and has some attractive folklike thematic elements, but there is always something a bit stodgy about it. It is workmanlike, but nothing in it soars. The handsome playing of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under David Lloyd-Jones gives the symphony a burnished presentation, but there remains more form than substance here.

      Although Stanford’s seventh and final symphony, in D minor, dates to 1911, the year of Mahler’s death, it looks back all the way to Mendelssohn in its light, scurrying opening. There is a bit of minor-key melancholy in the first movement, but the overall mood is thoughtful rather than intense, and the movement ends very softly. The second movement is again not a scherzo: it is marked, surprisingly, “Tempo di minuetto,” but has no strong ¾ rhythm. Indeed, there is little emphatic in this mostly passionless interlude. The slow movement is a genteel set of variations, featuring particularly good writing for woodwinds and brass. It leads directly to the fanfare-like opening of the finale, whose lyrical second theme sounds particularly pleasant on the strings. There is a certain elegance of orchestration here – but in this movement as elsewhere, much of the music is played at moderate dynamic levels, almost as if Stanford had externalized the once-famous reserve of the British.

      The French, on the other hand, are known to be more emotionally tempestuous, and the third symphony of Albert Roussel (1869-1937) certainly fits that reputation. France is not particularly known for producing great symphonists, but Roussel had certainly mastered the form by the time of this work (1929-1930). Although more in line with 20th-century musical developments than anything by Stanford, Roussel’s Third is scarcely forward-looking. It is episodic, with periods of intensity rapidly followed by calmer ones. The first movement flickers quickly from hard-driving sections to more-relaxed ones. The Adagio is balletic, swelling and subsiding repeatedly and – despite its designation as the slow movement – including a fast section that builds to a substantial climax before the music falls back into tenderness. The third movement features irregular rhythms and attractive percussion, and leads directly into the finale. This is propulsive, but with relaxed interludes and fine writing for the high woodwinds, and brings the symphony to a colorful close.

      Still, Roussel’s forte lay more in ballet than in the tighter symphonic structure. Bacchus et Ariane dates to the same time as the Third Symphony (1930) and comes across more successfully, precisely because Roussel’s opulent orchestration and clever use of rhythm are here given in snippets of sound, most of them lasting no more than three minutes. The ballet tells the story of Ariadne after Theseus, having defeated the Minotaur with her help, abandons her. Theseus appears briefly in the ballet, and there is a “Dance of the Labyrinth” early on, but most of the music is devoted to Ariadne’s discovery by Bacchus and the way she falls under his spell. Roussel prepared two suites from this work – one from each act – so when both are played, as they are here, you have the complete ballet. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra may not be entirely idiomatic in its handling of this very French music, but Stéphane Denève elicits expert playing, if not exactly the sort of sound that French orchestras deliver. Soft and sweet dances alternate effectively with more angular, intense ones. The ones near the end of the second suite are especially effective, as Ariadne’s sinuous, sensual dance is followed by a short and strongly rhythmic one for Bacchus – capped by a Bacchanal for the whole company and the majestic coronation of Ariadne at the ballet’s conclusion. Roussel did have talent as a symphonist, but it is in this ballet that his music really shines.

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