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Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
String Quartet No. 5 in B flat, Op. 104 In memoriam Joseph Joachim (1907) [34:49]
String Quartet No. 8 in E minor, Op. 167 (1919) [27:35]
Joseph JOACHIM (1831-1907)
Romance, from Drei Stücke für Violine und Klavier Op.2 No.1 (c. 1850) [4:29]
Dante Quartet
Mark Bebbington (piano)
rec. 7-8 December 2015, St Nicolas Parish Church, Thames Ditton, UK

This is an excellent disc in every respect - valuable and rare repertoire, superbly performed and presented in warm and detailed sound supported by insightful documentation. More excitingly, it would appear to be the first volume of a survey of all eight of Stanford's string quartets.

These quartets labour under a triple burden. Firstly, four of them never made it into print - the hugely impressive No.8 was probably not heard in Stanford's lifetime and had to wait nearly fifty years to be broadcast. Secondly, the prejudice about Stanford's stature as a composer still lingers. For too long he has been pigeon-holed as - at best - the teacher of the succeeding generation of composers including Vaughan Williams and at worst as a technically competent but musically limited composer shackled to the aesthetics of the Austro-German musical tradition. Thirdly - and this is a pet theory of mine - post World War II - and with the emergence and pre-eminence of the Amadeus Quartet who focused almost exclusive on that same core Germanic repertoire, nearly two generations of British quartet compositions went missing. There are great tranches of interesting - at least - British repertoire for quartet still awaiting discovery.

Of course, there is no smoke without fire - without a doubt Stanford did favour Germanic models and by the time of the 8th quartet his compositional style was anachronistically out of step with the times. But listen to this music in its own terms and it is always impressive and often considerably more than that. Quartet No.5 that opens the disc was the last to be published and dedicated 'In Memoriam Joseph Joachim'. The bond between Stanford and the violinist/composer Joachim was strong and enduring and the depth of Stanford's grieving can be heard in this work. Of the four movements, the first is the one that is the most predictable. Stanford's writing for the four instruments is always effective and mellifluous. I suppose the thing I miss here is a distinctive musical voice rather than just a highly competent one. Through all four movements Stanford weaves in reminiscences of Joachim's own Romance from the Drei Stücke für Violine und Klavier Op.2 No.1. This was one of Joachim's favourite encore pieces and the last piece Stanford ever heard him play. This opening Allegro moderato put me in mind of one of the less well-known Dvorak quartets - an energetic and good-tempered movement - if ultimately lacking in thematic memorability. But from this movement on and through both quartets the quality and all-important individuality starts to ratchet up. In place of a scherzo Stanford writes an Intermezzo- which explores material from the opening of the first movement and very skilfully incorporates the Joachim motto theme in its closing bars. Stanford told the Yorkshire Post in 1908 that the work "is not meant to be sad".

But the slow movement placed third - marked Adagio Pesante - is a piece of remarkable intensity. It leaps out of the speakers at you - as unexpected in its emotion as the power of the writing is suddenly quite individual. Jeremy Dibble's ever-excellent liner note guides the listener through the movement's keys and musical structure but the enduring impression is the music itself; the pain and grief barely contained. If you happen to be browsing through a paper or book with this disc spinning away in the background this music brings you up short - it demands attention - and by goodness it receives no-holds-barred thrilling performance here.

The sombre mood is broken by a genial final movement which features another Joachim fingerprint - Stanford incorporates at the end of the first subject a figuration which was apparently the one Joachim played as a last-minute warm-up before going onstage. Such is Stanford's compositional skill that he is able to combine this figure with the original Joachim 'motto' and his own original material. Ultimately, the lyrical character of the motto takes precedence and the quartet comes to a touchingly quiet and reflective ending. What an enjoyable work.

Before considering the eighth quartet I really must pay homage to the playing of the excellent Dante Quartet. By definition this is unfamiliar repertoire and not only do they play it with complete technical assurance but more importantly real musical conviction. Stanford writes rich lush harmonies for the quartet and this is reflected in the superb intonation and ensemble of the Dantes. This is vibrant and dynamic quartet playing of the highest order. In good composer best-practice Stanford share the music argument around all four instruments demanding considerable virtuosity of all the players. Also, I am always pleased to hear a real range of tonal colours and dynamics from quartets. Especially with this kind of rich and romantic writing it is very tempting to sit dynamically in a land of lush mezzo-forte and up. The Dantes serve the music, which sounds like an obvious thing to do but is surprisingly rare. In this they are extremely well supported by the regular Somm team of producer Siva Oke and engineer Paul Arden-Taylor. St. Nicholas Parish Church in Thames Ditton - near Hampton Court in South West London - provides a warmly generous backdrop for the quartet but Somm have placed the players ideally within the acoustic. Not so near that the sound becomes oppressive and every sniff and page turn registers but not so far back that the acoustic blurs detail. Valuably, the leader of the quartet Krysia Osostowicz is joined by pianist Mark Bebbington, to play the Joachim Romance the 5th quartet alludes to and it receives a perfect performance - lyrical and sensitive and not trying to make more of the piece than it can take. Somm logically place the Romance between the two main works although I would recommend that for the second or third listen it is good to play it first before the 5th Quartet. The more you have Joachim's work in your ear, the more you grow to appreciate Stanford's skill in integrating it into the quartet.

Jeremy Dibble writes of the unpublished 8th Quartet; "... a work that a attests to Stanford's cleaving to the tradition of German Chamber Music, even though by this time [1919], such an aesthetic was largely spurned in favour of a new modernity and sense of nationalism..... more sombre in disposition, [it] conveys a mood of nostalgia and longing for a past époque." Overall, I find the 8th to be more consistently impressive work. The high points of the 5th are wonderful but I feel the musical through-argument of No.8 to be of an even higher order. Although by no means a 'modern' piece in 1919 terms, Stanford does explore the potential of quartet writing in a more varied and technically challenging way. Again, I have nothing but praise for the way the Dante Quartet rise to the numerous and considerable challenges the work contains. I like the way the first movement is less 'comfortable' than equivalent movement in No.5. There is a melodic and harmonic instability that makes for a more intriguing listen. No.5 is attractive for sure but even at a first listen perhaps a tad predictable. The 2nd movement 'scherzo' is again an allegretto - Jeremy Dibble again describes it perfectly; "lighter textures, simple melodies, and good-humoured gestures". Both here and in the finale Stanford calls on his Irish heritage with strumming pizzicati and melodies that have a distinct Celtic flavour. This is a charming movement played with beauty and total lack of affectation. The following Andante/Canzona does not try to scale the emotional peaks of the equivalent in No.5. Instead Stanford writes a simply noble and very beautiful song-without-words. Excellent choice of tempo from the Dantes again - the music has poise and dignity but does not become becalmed. I like it very much when over a rocking figure the melody gradually builds in passion and is passed around the quartet - there is an Elgarian power to this.

Stanford's final movement in the quartet genre is a stamping dance with strong beats slipping and sliding quirkily. Just when you assume this is going to build to a boisterous and unbuttoned conclusion with little more than a minute to go Stanford returns to the questioning music of the opening movement. In the quartet's coda, nervy syncopations accompany a falling violin melody which in turn slowly fades away leaving the piece curiously open-ended. It is quite unexpected (if you listen to music without having read the liner first) but rather compelling.

Somm's catalogue is building up to be very impressive in the field of British music. From Paul Spicer's excellent work with his choir in Birmingham, to Simon Callaghan & Hiroaki Takenouchi's fscinating survey of Delius' orchestral work for 2 pianos, let alone Mark Bebbington's superbly consistent surveys of the piano music of Ireland, Bridge, Alwyn et al to name but a few. An honoured position in that roster of excellence must now be given to the Dante Quartet and this new recording. If you have any interest in British Chamber Music generally or Stanford specifically or even the art of the String Quartet I would recommend this very warmly. Stanford is having a good month - his Stabat Mater on Naxos has received a powerful new recording - and the reassessment of his stature as a composer can only be furthered by hearing these quartets. I do hope all the energy and work that the Dante Quartet have invested in this music encourages that most conservative of creatures - the Music Society Booking Committee - to allow them to play these works in concert too. Wonderful as it is to have performances of this calibre on disc, they deserve to be heard live.

A very impressive disc in every respect - repertoire of real worth presented in excellent sound and performed with consummate skill and musicianship. Volume two is eagerly awaited. This is certainly on my shortlist for a disc of the year.

Nick Barnard

Previous review: John Quinn



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