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Tag: Howard Shelley

A Spirited Irish Orchestra Tackles Inspiring British Classical Rarities

Charles Villiers Stanford is revered as a composer in the UK, but is lesser known beyond his home turf. His stately organ works are frequently performed on this side of the pond. His orchestral music was an foundational influence on Ralph Vaughan Williams and falls solidly in the Romantic camp, full of drama, dynamism and colorful orchestration. Howard Shelley conducts the Ulster Orchestra in a new album comprising several Stanford works including A Song of Agincourt, which hasn’t hit the web yet.

They open with a robust, emphatic version of his Overture in the Style of a Tragedy, a relatively recent rediscovery which this orchestra premiered in 2010. From its initial Beethovenesque pulses, through numerous plaintive oboe solos, it’s evocative of the more heroic-themed work of Cesar Franck.

As World War I was drawing to a close, Stanford orchestrated his Organ Sonata No. 2 and retitled it Verdun: Solemn March and Heroic Epilogue. Its majestic counterpoint translates well to the steady, brassy processional and rather wistful interpretation which the orchestra follow with in the former, and the victorious swells and dips (and wry Marseillaise quotes) of the latter.

The women’s choir Codetta under the direction of Donal Doherty join the orchestra for a plainchant-inspired yet soaring take of Stanford’s Fairy Day triptych. The nocturnal segments of the concluding movement are particularly celestial.

The Song of Agincourt – commemorating Henry V’s invading army taking advantage of the defending French, who were struggling under one of the most corrupt regimes in that nation’s history – is a strong centerpiece. Shelley and the ensemble work Stanford’s variations on a 15th century troubadour waltz with lithe energy and surprisingly subtle foreshadowing throughout its many calm, woodsy moments, up to a brief, insistent coda. Bellicose backstory aside, this is a strikingly anthemic, optimistic piece of music that deserves to be better known.

Tireless Pianist Howard Shelley Resurrects a Pair of Brilliant Obscurities

If brilliant, overlooked High Romantic classical music is your thing, you could spend a large proportion of your life getting lost in Hyperion Records’ Romantic Piano Concerto series. Over a grand total of eighty releases, they’ve resurrected many lesser-known works which are every bit as memorable as the famous pieces that get played over and over again in classical halls around the world (or used to get played there, before the lockdown, anyway). Much of this music falls into the haunted-castle-in-a-thunderstorm category, which is an accurate if overly reductionistic way to describe the latest edition in the series, Volume 80 –  which hasn’t hit any of the usual online spots yet – where pianist Howard Shelley does double duty conducting the Sinfonieorchester St. Gallen in a couple of obscure treasures by Belgian composers Auguste Dupont and Peter Benoit.

The first piece is Dupont’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in F Minor, which the composer debuted in 1882. Beethovenesque bluster contrasts with proto-Rachmaninovian glitter and some genuinely stunning, bittersweetly cantabile tunesmithing in the first movement: it’s shocking that this music isn’t better known.

Likewise, the hush of the horns and strings versus Shelley’s moody forward drive in the rather reserved, nocturnal second movement is particularly striking. His romping, ascending phrases and cascades take centerstage in the triumphant concluding movement, whose counterpoint looks straight back to Beethoven.

Benoit was an early advocate for Flemish music. His darkly colorful mid-1860s Symphonic Poem, Op 43 is a tableau centered around the ruins of a castle in the composer’s hometown of Harelbeke.

On one level, it’s amusing to see how the composer – a pianist, no less – will cap off one crescendo after another with extended trills rather than the kind of virtuosic cadenzas you expect in this kind of music. Which explains why, in the late 1890s, pianist Arthur De Greef came up with his own arrangement to beef it up. For the record, Shelley and the orchestra play the original Benoit score.

A simple, stalking pizzicato riff from the cellos sets up the first variations on the starkly vivid initial folk-inspired theme. As the music warms, grows more stately and heroic, it prefigures Dvorak at his most dramatic. Listen closely to the slow, hushed introduction to the “Bardic Song” of a second movement and you’ll hear a wistful folk ballad, which Shelley and the ensemble shift elegantly to memorably, anthemic Romantic longing.

The finale is particularly interesting since the piano is so strongly present in the foreground in the initial exchanges with the orchestra, really keeping their distance here. Numerous fleetingly unexpected figures leap from the ensemble; there’s also a strange moment about two minutes in where the composer may have made a mistake and forgot to go back and tweak the harmonies. The phantasmagoria as the piece reaches the end is a long-awaited payoff.