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Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
String Quartet No. 5 in B flat, op. 104 (1907)
String Quartet No. 8 in E minor, op. 167 (1919)
Joseph JOACHIM (1831-1907)
Romanze, for violin and piano, no. 1 from Drei Stücke, op. 2 (c. 1848/52) [4.29]
Dante Quartet
Mark Bebbington (piano)
rec. December 2015, St. Nicholas Church, Thames Ditton, Surrey, UK
SOMM SOMMCD0160 [67.12]

Hearty congratulations are due to the Somm label and the Dante Quartet for providing the opportunity of hearing première recordings of two of Sir Charles Villiers Stanford’s string quartets. In 2005 Hyperion did release an album of Stanford’s first and second string quartets plus the Horn Fantasy played by the RTÉ Vanbrugh Quartet. I did expect a number of his other unrecorded quartets to quickly follow but that was not the case. In truth listening to this Somm album was a bitter-sweet experience on the one hand sheer delight at hearing such excellent works yet on the other hand there is a sense of irritation at having to wait decades for first recordings of two such marvellous works written over a century ago.

A great composition teacher at the Royal College of Music with his own scores Stanford is rarely associated with the field of chamber music although he composed an impressive total of eight String Quartets between the years of 1891/1919; half were published and the other half remained in manuscript. Stanford clearly took the responsibility of writing for the genre very seriously as he was aged 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.
A 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). It could be said that Joachim had been a personal mentor to the young Stanford just as Mendelssohn had been 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. Throughout these two String Quartets I cannot escape hearing the considerable influence of Mendelssohnian charm, optimism, variety and rich lyricism combined with Schubertian poetry and Schumann’s emotional expressiveness and intensity.
Stanford composed his Fifth String Quartet in 1907 receiving its première in March the next year at Leeds and then in London. The score is dedicated to the memory of Joachim who had died in August 1907. Stanford stated that the quartet was not intended to be sad, mindful that Joachim’s memory should be celebrated not associated with sorrow. This is a most engaging work and is splendidly varied in character. The opening movement Allegro moderato at turns feels buoyant and sultry. Calm and comforting the Intermezzo contains an undertow of introspection. The Allegro feels neat and organised with a theme that is strikingly similar in melody and predates by around twenty-five years the exciting main theme in the opening of Walton’s First Symphony. Mainly squally in quality, in the Finale contrasting moods battle for prominence.

Written in 1919 Stanford’s Eighth String Quartet was his final work in the genre and could easily be given the subtitle the ‘Irish’ owing to its use of Irish-folk themes. It is thought that the work was not performed during Stanford’s lifetime. Eventually the score was performed for a BBC radio broadcast in 1968 and later in the year was played at the Savile Club in Mayfair, London by the London String Quartet. The opening Allegro moderato is principally agitated in feel with a conspicuous searching undertone. Uplifting and summery in feel the short Allegretto is bracing with the feel of Irish-folk music. Marked Canonza attractive melodic themes pervade the writing and the final movement Allegro is buoyant with the return of jaunty Irish-folk rhythms although a contrasting mood of sadness is never far away.
Pertinent to this release is the inclusion of a work by Joachim a long-time friend of Stanford. Joachim is represented by his Romanze for violin and piano the first piece from his Drei Stücke composed around 1848/52 which is dedicated to Moritz Hauptmann his teacher. In a single movement lasting just over four minutes to perform it’s a lovely rhapsodic work full of interest.

Throughout the Dante Quartet demonstrates fine form allowing the innate quality of Stanford’s writing to shine through. Recorded at St. Nicholas Church, Thames Ditton the recorded sound is bone dry and robs the strings of body. Immediately after playing this release listening to a glorious recording of string trios by Naumann and Berger from the Dresdner Streichtrio on Querstand highlights a drawback with the Dante string tone which for my ideal would be fuller and far richer.

There is so much to admire in this fine Somm album from two first Stanford recordings right down to the striking cover image ‘Vanity’ a portrait painting by Frank Cadogan Cowper RA.

Michael Cookson

Previous reviews: John Quinn ~ Nick Barnard



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