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Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852 - 1924)
Piano Quintet in D minor, Op. 25 (1886) [37:13]
String Quintet No. 1 in F major, Op. 85 (1903) [27:25]
Piers Lane, piano (Op. 25)
Garth Knox, viola (Op. 85)
RTÉ Vanbrugh Quartet
Recorded in the Henry Wood Hall, London, 17-19 November 2004. DDD
HYPERION CDA67505 [64:42]


The enterprising Hyperion label is to be heartily congratulated for continuing to champion Stanford’s music especially with this adventurous series of neglected chamber works. On reviewing the earlier Hyperion release CDA67434 of world première recordings of the String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2 with the Fantasy for Horn Quintet, I stated that, "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 these performances from the RTÉ Vanbrugh Quartet." There is no claim made that these two chamber works are première recordings although that’s what they are. These two Hyperions have in common that they allow the immense quality of Stanford’s writing to continue to shine through like a beacon.

There was clearly a mutual attraction between the Dublin-born Stanford and England as the composer adopted England as his home country. He was to spend the vast majority of his life there. He established himself in England as a leading figure in the musical life of the country. He was appointed professor of composition at the Royal College of Music in London at its foundation in 1883. Four years later he was elected to the chair of music at Cambridge University. Going by the number of prestigious academic honours that Stanford received and his knighthood, the English music establishment was clearly delighted to accommodate him.

Stanford and 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 music. Stanford is frequently at his very best in his liturgical works and his settings of canticles, hymns, anthems, services and organ works, composed for the Anglican Church, are amongst the finest of their type. They 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, Webern, Stravinsky et al. Music had rapidly ‘moved forward’ and the English late-romantics of Stanford’s generation had become marginalised. Stanford’s tonal and conservative music with a well-designed lyricism crammed with colour, 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 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 are now be able to reassess Stanford’s works for their appeal and innate quality rather than for the dynamic of the era in which they were written.

Outside Stanford’s church music, with the odd exception such as the popular choral setting The Blue Bird and some songs, it is rare to see one of his works appearing in concert and recital programmes. A large amount of hsi vast output remains unavailable in the catalogues and by my estimation a number of his works have 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. I believe that the orchestral score one is most likely to hear in concert is the Clarinet Concerto in A minor, Op 80. I have long admired the 1979 London recording from soloist Thea King and the Philharmonia under Alun Francis on Hyperion Helios CDH55101 c/w the Finzi Clarinet Concerto. review

In recent years Chandos became vigorous advocates for Stanford’s music with their groundbreaking series of recordings under Vernon Handley of the Seven Symphonies on CHAN 9279 and the Six Irish Rhapsodies, Piano Concerto No. 2 and Concert Variations upon an English Theme (Down Among the Dead Men) on CHAN X10116 review. Naxos have continued this momentum with a re-recent release of the première recording of the wonderful Requiem on 8.555201-02 (see my review). My particular favourite of all Stanford’s records in my collection are the orchestral song cycles, Songs of the Sea, Op.91 (1904) and the Songs of the Fleet, Op. 117 (1910) with baritone, Benjamin Luxon, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under Norman Del Mar, This is on EMI Classics ‘British Composers’ series on 5 65113 2, c/w Delius Sea Drift.

Overshadowed by the distinction of his sacred choral works, Stanford is rarely associated with the field of chamber music, although he composed an impressive total of eight string quartets between 1891 and 1919 and there are several other chamber scores. He 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 works for a variety of instrumental combinations.

It is thought that the major stimulus for Stanford to compose many of his string quartets and string quintets et al was the influence of his friend the legendary Hungarian virtuoso violinist and composer Joseph Joachim (1831-1907). It could be said that Joachim was 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, which Joachim had founded in 1869.

Completed in 1886 the substantial four movement Piano Quintet in D minor, Op. 25 is the earliest of the two scores. Described by musicologist Jeremy Dibble as his, "grandest chamber work" the Piano Quintet was dedicated to Joachim and premièred at the Cambridge Guildhall with the composer at the piano. The score is most certainly influenced by the ambitious scale and deserved widespread popularity of the magnificent Piano Quintets of Schumann and Brahms.

The first two movements, the allegro and the scherzo, are in minor keys and the last two, the adagio and allegro in major keys. It was said to be Stanford’s intention to transport his audience from the bold contrasts of melancholy introspection to extrovert joy and optimism. I just love this superb music but I do at times wonder if Stanford, so steeped in the world of academia, fought shy of writing that really ‘big’ tune, or maybe thought that to do so would be beneath him.

The Vanbrugh, augmented by pianist Piers Lane, commence the proceedings sweetly with a warm and summery mood. There is plenty of work for the piano and violin and at 04:55-05:17 a passionate lullaby is given to each instrument. The booklet refers to the doom and foreboding of this opening movement, however, what strikes me is the substantial amount of Brahmsian summer optimism radiating from this busy and eventful movement. It is well-crafted but the development section does not especially inspire and it easily loses momentum.

In the jig-like scherzo the Vanbrughs expertly take me into the fantasy sound-world of witchery and magic. Instead of aping Mendelssohn as so many late nineteenth-century scherzos do, the movement is reminiscent of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Dukas and Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre. I found nothing too darkly unsettling in this scherzo and certainly nothing disturbingly demonic as suggested in the booklet notes. For me Stanford has his tongue set firmly in his cheek. The Vanbrughs emphasise the rhythmic bounce in Stanford’s confident writing and are especially charming in the folksong-like trio. Despite the generally fine performance, I found the playing a touch untidy for a few bars of the good-humoured pizzicato section at 05:02-05:11.

The shadows begin to lift in the adagio espressivo of the Piano Quintet. Highly romantic playing from the Vanbrughs in this slow movement which is so plentiful in yearning and pleading with extensive lyrical melody. This gorgeous music is clearly an outpouring of love and could easily be Stanford’s musical representation of a passionate love-letter or poem. A stormy and tense passage from 02:04 that the Vanbrughs successfully increase in strength and sheer passion before exhaustingly relenting to comparative calmness at 04:38. Between 07:21-07:49 there is a return to music of energetic determination. Here I noticed the use of a brief motif that may be a deliberate quotation from the Wedding March from Mendelssohn’s incidental music to the Shakespeare play A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Vanbrughs successfully bring the movement to a measured and peaceful conclusion. Goodness, how Stanford is wearing his heart on his sleeve in this movement. I cannot agree with the viewpoint of a friend of mine who feels that this movement is disappointing, nothing but romantic posturing that goes nowhere; with stilted piano writing.

The finale of the Piano Quintet inhabits the world of Schumann and provides a grand and radiant conclusion, in D major, a key that has such strong associations with joy and elation. The Vanbrughs impressively display a jagged and relentless rhythmic drive throughout and at 06:39 they commence the race to the conclusion. A most impressive facet of this splendid performance from the Vanbrughs and pianist Piers Lane is how admirably the five instruments blend. Stanford adds colour to the score by using the piano like a voice with the music not being exclusively written around the piano part. Consequently, Piers Lane’s percussion instrument does not dominate the proceedings at the expense of the strings.

The three movement String Quintet No 1 in F major, Op. 85 was completed in Malvern in 1903 and given its première at a Popular Concert at St. James Hall, London early the next year. In the bright key of F major this work commences with a buoyant and exultant allegro, full of warmth and rich scoring. The two violas introduce a pleasant Brahmsian passage at 01:52, and although at 03:48 the wide intervals of new melody point towards Richard Strauss, the structure is rhythmically disciplined; we are still very much in the territory of Brahms and maybe Dvořák. The Vanbrughs and Garth Knox provide a luxuriant autumnal glow to the ebb and flow of the score. However, something seems to go awry in the proceedings for a few bars between 04:03-04:18.

The central movement andante drew attention in its day for its assimilation of traditional Irish music. Unfortunately my ears were not able to identify this integration of Irish themes. The slow movement is a lament demanding considerable rubato and liberal treatment of the metre. Stanford agreed "… it gained by it greatly" if a very ‘free’ performance style was adopted. The unison opening is almost religioso and the middle section rouses the players like a hunting horn (01:45) saying, ‘look not to the past with its sad memories but look forward’. This is only a brief interlude as the mood drifts, the opening religioso returns but it has changed. Now there is an understanding, a new outlook. The score ends tenderly and we move on, wiser, and improved. I was highly impressed with the dark and serious playing which gradually intensifies.

At twelve minutes in length the extended concluding third movement is an amalgam of scherzo and finale. The construction is governed by an overarching scheme of theme and expanding variations. An unremarkable Schubertian melody recurs in different guises. Stanford’s use of many pauses has the effect of holding the attention. There is a scampering scherzo at 02:54, a dreamlike Elgarian passage with muted strings at 03:50 and then the early carefree and relaxed manner dramatically changes in mood from 04:43 to one of a much darker hue. There seems to be a reference to the end of Smetana’s String Quartet No.1From My Life’, but what does it all mean? A fugato begun by the viola shakes the music out of its mood and we move forward. The tense and short dash to the finishing line comes as a welcome relief to what has gone before. I’d love to know what was the motivating force that drove Stanford to write this fascinating movement. The talented Vanbrughs are impressive throughout this movement and skilfully provide episodes of an unsettling and agitated nature.

Jeremy Dibble’s notes are informative and up to the high standard we have come to expect. Fine work too by the Hyperion engineers with a sound quality that is crisp, clear and well balanced.

I am at a loss why anyone would not wish to add this superb Stanford chamber release to their collection. Wonderful music and marvellously performed. Highly recommended.

Michael Cookson

 

 

 



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