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Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
String Quartet no.1 in G op.44 (1891) [29:01]
String Quartet no.2 in A minor op.45 (1891) [27:03]
Fantasy for Horn and String Quartet* (1922) [11:47]
RTÉ Vanbrugh Quartet, with Stephen Stirling (horn)*
Recorded 22nd-24th September 2003 in the Henry Wood Hall, London
HYPERION CDA67434 [68:09]
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I bought second-hand miniature scores of Stanfordís first two string quartets in 1971 and 1974 respectively, so itís nice to be able actually to listen to them at last! I have, however, already offered a quite detailed analysis of aspects of these works in an article, "Stanfordís Couples", originally published in the BMS News but now available on this site , so I will repeat here only my conclusion that the two works seem designed to show the two different aspects of Stanfordís personality, the classical and the romantic.

I would like to point out to prospective buyers that acquiring Stanfordís first two string quartets is a very different matter to purchasing his first two symphonies. The usually intrepid Stanford held the string quartet in considerable reverence and by the time he took the plunge he had already penned four symphonies, three concertos, three operas and two oratorios, not to speak of numerous smaller pieces and several chamber works. The first two quartets, then, are fully mature products.

Though a large number of important works by Stanford remain unavailable, as it happens all but one of the chamber works preceding the first two quartets (excepting an early piano trio which is not known to have survived) are now on record, some in more than one version, and namely:

Cello Sonata no.1 op.9 (1877): Moncrieff-Kelly/Howell, Meridian review
Violin Sonata no.1 op.11 (c.1876-7): Barritt/Edwards, Hyperion, review also a version by Suzanne Stanzeleit which I havenít heard review
Three Intermezzi for clarinet and piano op.13 (1879): Johnson/Martineau, ASV and at least one previous version
Piano Quartet no.1 op.15 (1879): Pirasti Trio, Dukes, ASV review
Piano Quintet op.23 (1886): no recording
Piano Trio no.1 op.35 (1889): Pirasti Trio, ASV review
Cello Sonata no.2 op.39 (1889): J. Lloyd Webber/McCabe, ASV; Moncrieff Kelly/Howell, Meridian review

Reviews of most of these can be found on the site.

Now that I have actually heard this music, I am happy to report that it wears its erudition lightly, thanks to Stanfordís well-spaced writing which always produces a luminous and lyrical effect even when it may look dense on paper. The spare fugal writing which opens no.2, for example, proves to have a mistily evocative poetic quality which looks ahead to another magical passage in A minor, the opening section of the Fourth Irish Rhapsody. Rarely did Stanfordís classical aspirations wed his love of melody more happily, resulting in works which have a pithy concentration which eludes even the best of the symphonies. Though I still stand by my view that the second is the finer, since its content is remarkably wide-ranging, I am inclined now to rate both of them as masterpieces, and not just in a British context.

One movement which particularly intrigues me is the "Poco allegro e grazioso" of no.1, which Jeremy Dibbleís generally splendidly informative notes describe as a "Scherzo"; surely the tempo marking suggests a Brahmsian Intermezzo, and that is how the RTÉ Vanbrugh Quartet interpret it. This could be Stanfordís "Valse Triste", for its restless modulations and intrusive chromaticisms create a distinctly unsettling effect; they go beyond Brahms to hint at Max Reger and must surely have sounded surprisingly modern in their day.

The "Andante espressivo" of no.2 was once set as a harmony exercise in a B.Mus exam at Edinburgh University (the students were given a few bars complete and then only the first violin part). I well remember arriving for a tutorial with Kenneth Leighton who had just gone through the ordeal of correcting the studentsí exam papers and was now investigating the original. He was aware of my interest in Stanford and confessed amazement at the quality of this piece, as well as at its many proto-Elgarian twists of harmony. He also felt it had been a mistake to set it since it simply could not be resolved by treating it as Brahms and really required a knowledge of the musicís own style; he wondered if Stanford would eventually have a greater role in future teaching programmes.

Completing the disc is Stanfordís last original chamber work (a few arrangements of Irish melodies for violin and piano followed in 1923). The composerís last years are sometimes seen as a decline and it is true that he sometimes returned a little automatically to fields he knew all too well how to plough (church music and Irish songs, for example), but the opportunity to do something new could still set his genius afire, as happened with the Concert Piece for Organ, Strings, Brass and Timpani (available on Chandos) and the two Fantasies for Clarinet and String Quartet (recorded by Thea King on Hyperion). The opening of the Horn Fantasy is quite breathtakingly wonderful, with the jagged rhythms flashing across the scene and the horn rising from the depths of the texture. Later it relaxes into a valedictory mood, though at the end the composer bows out quixotically. Stanford would have vented all his caustic wit on me for the comparison, but I couldnít help thinking of Richard Straussís late works in which nostalgia and a final leave-taking mingle with a still questing spirit.

The RTÉ Vanbrugh Quartet distinguish cunningly between the Olympian classicism of the First Quartet, the more romantically varied Second Quartet and the pure lyricism of the Fantasy, in which we can also enjoy some rich-toned horn playing. The recording was produced by Andrew Keener and is fully up to his own and Hyperionís high standards.

I hope this disc will not only be heard by aficionados of British music. If your collection already contains the quartets of Brahms, DvořŠk and Tchaikovsky, you will enjoy getting to know these fine works. Recommended with all possible enthusiasm.

Christopher Howell

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