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Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852–1924)
String Quartet No. 1 in G major Op. 44 (1891) [29'01]
(1 Allegro assai [8'49]; 2 Poco allegro e grazioso — Presto — Tempo I — Presto — Tempo I [4'34]; 3 Largo con molto espressione [10'06] 4 Allegro molto [5'24])
String Quartet No. 2 in A minor Op. 45 (1891) [27'03]
(1 Molto moderato — Più moto — Tempo I — Più moto — Tempo I [9'36]; 2 Prestissimo [2'29] 3 Andante espressivo [7'28] 4 Allegro molto [7'19])
Fantasy for Horn Quintet in A minor (1922) (ed. Dibble) [11'47]
Stephen Stirling French horn
RTÉ Vanbrugh Quartet
rec. Henry Wood Hall, London, 22-24 Sept 2003. DDD
HYPERION CDA67434 [68'09]
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Jeremy Dibble reminds us that Stanford wrote a total of eight string quartets between 1891 and 1919. His seven symphonies were written over much the same period. Each clearly had a sustained magnetic pull on his creativity. The symphonies have been brought out into the light by Vernon Handley on Chandos CDs. However, before him Norman Del Mar recorded the Third for EMI and BBC studio versions of some of the symphonies were conducted by Alan Suttie, Handley, Maurice Handford, Steuart Bedford, Nicholas Braithwaite and Charles Groves. The string quartets were not so lucky although, during the 1960s, the Alberni and London quartets performed numbers 7 and 8 on BBC radio’s Third Programme.

On the evidence of the first two quartets their orientation is locked to the Brahmsian manner. In this channel Stanford wrote with an invincibly liberated fluency. It therefore comes as no surprise to learn that Joachim was Stanford's mentor from earliest manhood until Joachim's death in 1907.

The first quartet and the second share adjacent opus numbers. They are both in four movements and each has a playing time of about half an hour.

The First's allegro assai looks towards Mozart and Dvořák mixed in with the bohemian air of the Smetana First Quartet From My Life. Stanford writes with a wonderful confidence and evokes a similarly confident commitment from the Vanbrughs. Try the second and final movements for a wonderfully light-filled example of naturalistic engineering and playing. Mendelssohn's glorious String Octet seems to have had its influence on the finale.

The First Quartet had its London premiere at St James Hall on 27 November 1893. It had its world premiere in Newcastle-upon-Tyne on 22 January 1892. This was given by the Cambridge University Music Society quartet.

The Second Quartet was praised by George Bernard Shaw as a genuine piece of absolute music. He lavished a similar encomium on its predecessor. The first movement is severe but then relaxes into a warm Viennese serenade (1.55). The most remarkable movement is the intensely lyrical and aureate Andante Espressivo said to be instinct with the character of the dedicatee Richard Gompertz. The work is otherwise busily bustling with snatches of Hungarian dance-like material here and there amid the voices of Mendelssohn, Smetana and Dvořák.

The 1922 Horn Fantasy was written two years before Stanford's death. It is a wonderfully effective work superbly laid out for this far from equable wedding of instruments. The horn is expertly resolved into the melos of the piece. It evinces no sign of being the work of an old man. The horn writing veers between the Mozart concertos and Schumann in the second and third symphonies and the Konzertstück. Stanford expertly spins the usual four movements into a single span of only eleven minutes. It ends amid rambunctious triumph recalling the Strauss First Horn Concerto.

We must fervently hope that this is the first of a series in which Hyperion will record all eight of these fine works. Be sure to snap up this first instalment.

Rob Barnett


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