Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852 - 1924)
String Quartet No. 1 in G major, Op. 44 (1891) [29:01]
String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 45 (1891) [27:03]
Fantasy for Horn Quintet in A minor (1922) (edited Dibble) [11:47]
RTÉ Vanbrugh Quartet
Stephen Sterling (French horn)
Recorded in the Henry Wood Hall, London, U.K. 22-24 September 2003. DDD
HYPERION CDA67434 [68:09]

The enterprising Hyperion label are to be congratulated for providing us with the opportunity to hear the first recordings of three of Stanford's chamber works. This is music that once heard makes one demand to know why these works have not been recorded before; such is the quality of the scores and standard of performance.

There was clearly a mutual attraction between the Dublin-born Stanford and England; the composer adopted England as his home and he was to spend the vast majority of his life there. Going by the number of prestigious academic honours he received and the knighthood, the English music establishment was clearly delighted to accommodate him.

Stanford together with Parry were major influences in British music for almost half a century as composers, conductors, teachers and academics. Although the prolific Stanford composed in many genres he is often described as the ‘father of English Choral Music’ being principally remembered today for his contribution to sacred choral music. Stanford is frequently at his very best in his liturgical works. His settings of the canticles, hymns, anthems, services and organ works, are amongst the finest of their type and are still frequently performed in Anglican Cathedrals around the world.

Following the Great War there was an adverse reaction to music from composers associated with the Victorian and Edwardian eras. The established names now had to compete with the growing enthusiasm for progressive composers such as Schoenberg, Berg, Stravinsky et al. Music had rapidly moved forward and the English late-romantics of Stanford’s generation had become marginalised. His tonal and conservative music with a well-designed lyricism soon became unfashionable, so too that of his contemporaries Parry, Elgar, Mackenzie, Sullivan, German and Bantock. Stanford quickly became a victim of the ‘new fashion’ as he was still composing music in the manner of an earlier era. Consequently his music, with the exception of his liturgical works, moved into virtual obscurity. After a century we should now be able to reassess the music for its innate quality rather than for the dynamic of the era in which it was written.

A large proportion of Stanford’s vast output remains unpublished with a substantial body of his works never appearing in concert programmes and many works having yet to receive their first recording. Thanks to enterprising record companies such as Chandos, Naxos and Hyperion this deficiency is slowly but surely being remedied. Chandos were real innovators with their ground-breaking series under Vernon Handley of the Six Symphonies CHAN 9279 and the Six Irish Rhapsodies CHAN 10116X. Naxos have continued this movement with a recent release of the premiere recording of the Requiem on 8.555201-02 (previously on Marco Polo). Hyperion have joined in with several recordings including the present disc of chamber works receiving their premiere recordings.

Overshadowed by the distinction of his sacred choral works Stanford is rarely associated with chamber music although he composed an impressive total of eight string quartets between the years of 1891 to 1919. Stanford seemed to take the responsibility of writing for the genre very seriously as he was almost forty before commencing work on his First String Quartet, although he had by this time composed half a dozen chamber pieces for a variety of instrumental combinations.

It is thought that the major stimulus for Stanford to compose his first five string quartets was the influence of the legendary Hungarian virtuoso violinist and composer Joseph Joachim (1831-1907). Joachim had been a personal mentor to the young Stanford as had been Mendelssohn to the young Joachim. Stanford undoubtedly gained considerable inspiration from the playing of the distinguished Joachim Quartet who performed throughout Europe in the late eighteen-hundreds. In their publicity notes Hyperion state that, "Both quartets are serious, big-boned works that show Stanford’s mastery of the idiom and ability as a contrapuntist, although they generally display textures that are lighter and more transparent than the thicker palette of Brahms (with whom Stanford is sometimes compared)". Throughout these two String Quartets I cannot escape hearing the considerable influence of Mendelssohnian charm, optimism, variety and rich lyricism combined with Schubertian poetry, emotional expressiveness and intensity.

String Quartet No 1 in G major, Op. 44

Stanford composed his First String Quartet in 1891, whilst on holiday in the popular seaside resort of Llandudno. The first performance was given by the CUMS Quartet in Newcastle in January 1892. The fluent and often enchanting score was written swiftly which when hearing the quality of the music is a testament to Stanford’s impressive technical and imaginative facility.

The first movement contains an impressive variety of materials and textures. Stanford seems in rather a hurry in this predominantly agitated and moody Allegro assai. The Scherzo is complex, stormy and vigorous, containing only brief episodes of relative calm. The third movement Largo is delicate and passionate at times, yet maintains considerable restraint; as if chaperoned. Swift, jaunty, excitable and melodic the spirited Allegro molto brings the work to a songful close. In this final movement there is a recurring eight note theme (first heard on track 4 between points 0:43 to 0:55) that is virtually identical to the main theme from the third movement Scherzo of Schubert’s famous String Quintet in C major, D.956.

Stanford in his relative youth became familiar with the chamber music of the great masters from attending recitals in Dublin. Furthermore as an undergraduate at Cambridge, Stanford was a leading-light in the chamber music activities of the Cambridge University Musical Society (CUMS) where the major works of Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann and Brahms were frequently performed at their weekly recitals. Stanford certainly would have known the mainstream chamber music repertoire intimately and it is inconceivable that he would not have been consciously utilising the main theme from Schubert's String Quintet in C major; perhaps in homage to the great Austrian composer.

String Quartet No 2 in A minor, Op. 45 (1891)

It is thought that the Second String Quartet contains material planned for but not used in the contemporaneous First String Quartet. Much of the score was again composed in fashionable Llandudno as it seems that Stanford was writing a proportion of both works almost simultaneously. Stanford completed the score at Gilling Rectory in Yorkshire, while staying with his amateur musician friend Percy Hudson. The score’s premiere was again given by the CUMS Quartet, on this occasion in London at the Prince’s Hall, Piccadilly.

A work of vivid contrasts, alive with emotion from beginning to end, this quartet deserves to be a valued part of the standard chamber music repertoire. It opens with an uncertain and bemused mood that fluctuates from strained and emotional to placid and serious. The electrifying heights of the Scherzo movement, marked Prestissimo, are energised by its effective syncopations. Notable is the beauty, sobriety and solemnity of the Andante expressivo together with brief episodes of agitation and unrest. The Allegro molto concluding movement is a light-hearted romp that ends with an air of placidity and confidence.

Fantasy for Horn Quintet in A minor (1922)

Little is known about the history of the Horn Fantasy, a late work that Stanford completed in June 1922. I have been informed by Jeremy Dibble that the score is complete along with a less legible set of parts that he edited before the recording session. It remains a mystery whether it was composed especially for particular performers; whether it was a commission or a competition entry or whether the score has ever been performed in public, private or performed at all. Dibble in his excellent notes speculates that the Fantasy might have been written by Stanford for his students at the Royal College of Music.

Stanford often composed with a particular virtuoso performer or ensemble in mind. In view of the unusual instrumental combination it would be of no surprise if the Horn Fantasy had been composed specifically for Aubrey Brain (1893-1955) who was the foremost horn player of the day and would go on to make his Proms debut in 1923. Aubrey Brain was the dedicatee of several works composed for the French horn; for example the excellent Horn Quintet, Op. 85 by York Bowen available on Dutton Epoch CDLX 7115.

It is also possible that the Horn Fantasy could have associations with the W.W. Cobbett (1847-1937) Prize, the series of Phantasy chamber music competitions that Stanford and the Worshipful Company of Musicians encouraged to promote British chamber music. It was stipulated that the Phantasies should be in a single movement, have contrasting sections and be of moderate dimensions of which the Stanford Horn Fantasy seems to fit the criteria. Although I understand that the panel for the Cobbett competition always specified the instrumental combination for each particular year’s competition. It is known however that Stanford did write two scores for Clarinet and String Quartet for the Cobbett Prize at much the same time.

The Horn Fantasy is conceived in a single continuous structure which is divided into five sections with a central thematic strand that occurs at several strategic points and serves as the foundation for other thematic material. A bold and contrasting score that easily retains interest and never outstays its welcome. In short the work is one of the hidden-gems of late-romantic chamber music.

The performers of the Cork-based RTÉ Vanbrugh Quartet seem completely at home in these attractive and appealing chamber scores that are all being given their recording premieres. In the case of the Horn Fantasy, where the quartet is joined by admirable horn player Stephen Sterling, it is possible that this is being performed for the first time. The style and expressiveness of the players is impressive throughout. Their phrasing is rarely less than intelligent, pervading their interpretations with a highly appropriate Mendelssohnian and Schubertian spirit. I did however feel that the ensemble could have provided a touch more vitality and bite in the opening movement of the First Quartet. I was not entirely convinced by their tempo implementation and general security of ensemble in the difficult second movement of the Second Quartet. The Hyperion engineers have provided a most agreeable sound quality and the annotation from Jeremy Dibble is of the highest quality.

This is a must-obtain purchase for all serious chamber music lovers. I look forward to more volumes of the Stanford string quartets from Hyperion. Highly recommended.

Michael Cookson

See also review by Christopher Howell RECORDING OF THE MONTH February

Return to Index