Finghin Collins

Stanford: Piano Concerto No. 2; Variations on "Down among the Dead Men"

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Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924), known for his choral music if at all, was celebrated in his own time for instrumental music and opera as well. The Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 126, recorded here earned him an invitation to conduct the work in the U.S., from non other than the dean of American musical academia, Yale professor and Charles Ives tormentor Horatio Parker. Stanford had to cancel, having booked seats on the Lusitania. At the time, a concerto modeled closely on Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2, in the identical key of C minor, must have seemed a great idea on the theory that if some is good, more must be better. Later generations found the original item superior, but Stanford's concerto is worth a re-hearing in this beautifully executed version by Irish pianist Finghin Collins, who gave the work's belated BBC Proms premiere in 2008. He joins the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra under Kenneth Montgomery in a performance that brings out the remarkable filigreed textures, in the first movement, with tough left-hand figuration in the piano remaining perfectly clear as the winds and brasses add counterpoint above. The mood and the technique are pure Rachmaninov, although the harmony reflects a bit more of the Germanic-British axis. More characteristically British are the Concert Variations Upon an English Theme, "Down Among the Dead Men," in C minor, Op. 71. This gloomy tune is actually a drinking song; "dead men" are empty bottles lying on the floor. The song has a bitter tinge that is effectively set off by the methodically derived variations Stanford constructs upon it. With impressively transparent sound from the engineers of Switzerland's Claves label, working in Dublin's modest-sized National Concert Hall, this is a release that will appeal to those interested in the British scene of the early 20th century.

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