The anthems and service settings of Charles Villiers Stanford form part of the core repertory of Anglican choral music; from the grandest cathedrals to the smallest parish churches, it’s probably safe to say that on any given Sunday, you will find Stanford’s music being sung somewhere. Whilst his choral music has remained extremely popular, his significant orchestral output, which includes seven symphonies and a number of concertos, is less well known. Last night’s concert by the Durham University Orchestral Society and the Stanford Society went one step further, exploring the new reaches of Stanford’s orchestral output.

Caricature of Charles Villiers Stanford, originally published in Vanity Fair, 2 February 1905.
Caricature of Charles Villiers Stanford, originally published in Vanity Fair, 2 February 1905.

The Concert Piece for Organ and Orchestra, Op. 181 was never performed in Stanford’s lifetime and remained forgotten until it was performed and recorded by organist Dame Gillian Weir in 1990. It received only its second public performance last night, given by one Dame Gillian’s students, Jonathan Clinch. This dramatic work gave us a taste of Stanford’s orchestral style and provided a good introduction to the central work of the evening, the world première performance of Stanford’s Violin Concerto no. 2 in G Minor, Op. 162. The concerto was left by Stanford in a version for violin and piano, and was orchestrated for tonight’s performance by Professor Jeremy Dibble of Durham University Music School.

Both pieces highlighted Stanford’s sensitivity to the instruments he writes for. The organ work is accompanied by strings, brass and percussion only, and the substantial brass section worked as a bridge between the organ and the strings; the dramatic opening section with big brass chords, alternating with dramatic organ flourishes was particularly effective. The first section of the violin concerto showed off the rich sonorities of the instrument’s lower register, and the faster solo passages were obviously very technically demanding, but never gave the sense of being simply a showpiece for a virtuosic soloist – the music always came first. This sensitivity carried over into Professor Dibble’s orchestration: I particularly enjoyed the brass and woodwind passages in the third movement that brought out what I thought was just a hint of something more modern, almost jazzy, in Stanford’s writing. There was also a beautiful clarinet solo in the slow movement, set against shimmering, muted strings – in his programme notes, Professor Dibble writes that some of the score seemed to “breathe certain types of idiomatic timbre and texture,” and the clarinet solo must have been one of those moments.

After an exciting opening, the organ piece seemed to meander rather aimlessly in the lyrical slower sections, before the brass returned and the piece built in excitement, gathering itself for a glorious final blast which allowed Jonathan Clinch to show off the magnificence of Durham Cathedral organ’s bombarde tuba stops, using pipes hidden high up in the rafters, and surrounding us with sound. Stanford obviously enjoyed dramatic openings and closings, but unlike the organ piece, the violin concerto held the attention all the way through. The spirited first movement and the rolling waltz-like tunes of the third movement were thoroughly enjoyable, and soloist Rupert Marshall-Luck brought out all the beauty of the melodic lines.

Stanford frequently made use of his native Irish folk-tradition in his works, most notably in his Irish Rhapsodies, and he returned to this for the beautiful second movement of the violin concerto. I kept expecting the lovely violin melody to break into a familiar folk-song, and the whole movement was suffused with a sense of loss and nostalgia.

On listening to both these works, I could understand why Stanford’s orchestral works have been neglected; in the exciting musical world of the early twentieth century, his rich romantic melodies and straightforward structure and orchestration must have seemed decidedly old-fashioned – he remains deeply rooted in the traditions of the 19th century; catch him unawares on the radio, and you might think you were listening to Mendelssohn or Brahms. Finishing the concert with a gloriously enthusiastic performance of Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony probably didn’t really do Stanford any favours, for the brilliance of Tchaikovsky’s orchestral writing overshadowed what we had heard before – closing the programme with one of Stanford’s symphonies would have made more sense. However, as tonight’s performances demonstrated, at the distance of a century, it doesn’t matter if Stanford was old-fashioned for his time. His orchestral work is finely crafted, and lovely to listen to, and the new violin concerto definitely deserves wider attention.