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Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
String Quintet No 1 in F major, Op 85 [28:02]
Three Intermezzi, Op 13, arr for cello and piano [8:11]
String Quintet No 2 in C minor, Op 86 [30:16]
Members of the Dante and Endellion Quartets; Benjamin Frith (piano)
rec. November, 2019, St Nicholas Parish Church, Thames Ditton, UK; April 2018, Turner Sims, Southampton (Intermezzi). DDD

Earlier this year I reviewed the last instalment of the excellent cycle of Stanford string quartets which the Dante Quartet had recorded for SOMM. That was also the final appearance on disc of the Dante Quartet in its then-current formation. However, three of the members, Krysia Osostowicz (violin), Yuko Inoue (viola) and Richard Jenkinson (cello) have teamed up with two members of the Endellion Quartet – violinist Ralph de Souza and violist Garfield Jackson – to record Stanford’s two string quintets. Op 85 has been recorded before (review), but Op 86 here makes its recorded debut.

The First Quintet was completed in April 1903. In his authoritative booklet essay Jeremy Dibble doesn’t actually say when the companion piece was finished but in his magisterial biography of the composer, Charles Villiers Stanford, Man and Musician (2002) Prof Dibble makes it clear that Stanford worked on both compositions simultaneously, and I infer from what he says in the book that the Second Quintet was completed at around the same time as the First. Both works were written with Stanford’s friend, the great violinist Joseph Joachim in mind. Indeed, we read in the notes that Stanford told Joachim in a letter that the Second Quintet was intended “as a little tribute” to mark the sixtieth anniversary of Joachim’s first visit to the UK in 1844. Though he was sent a set of parts there is, apparently, no evidence that Joachim performed the First Quintet in public, but he and the other members of his eponymous string quartet did give the first performance of the Second Quintet in Berlin in March 1904 and a few weeks later they brought the work to London and included it in one of their concerts there. The First Quintet was published but the Second did not follow it into print; for this recording the work has been edited by Jeremy Dibble.

I’ve always found myself more attracted to the string quintet medium rather than the string quartet. That’s because I prefer the richer textural possibilities of the former (and, indeed, of combinations of the piano and strings). Just a couple of minutes of listening to the opening movement of the F major Quintet offered an illustration of this point; the extra viola adds a welcome additional sonority. Speaking of the first of the work’s three movements, Jeremy Dibble remarks that it is “a warm, melodious, generous conception, euphoniously scored for the ensemble and especially for the richer texture of the two viola parts”. I completely agree. I also admired the elegance of the second subject. Throughout the movement, the five players cause the music to sound ideally relaxed and sunny. This is a genial movement and I enjoyed both music and performance.

The central Andante is a lament. The introduction to the movement is intoned in unison by a violin and a viola, a haunting timbre. For much of the time during this movement Stanford keeps all five instruments in their middle and lower registers, thereby emphasising the autumnal quality of the music. Jeremy Dibble points out one interesting compositional device: the use of elaborate ornamentation derived from an archaic form of traditional Irish singing. He says that the integration of this device whenever it occurs requires a good deal of flexibility from the players; all I can say is that these performers make it all sound very natural. The finale is the longest movement. The design is ingenious. Initially, the music takes the form of a theme and variations, which is most engaging. Then, at 4:57, completely against the run of play, as one might say, there’s an arresting reprise of material from the slow movement. At 5:55 the viola leads off new material in 9/8 time and this, Prof Dibble tells us, is the finale proper. What follows is scherzo-like in character and is thematically related to the slow movement. All this forms a breezy finale to a fine quintet.

If the F major Quintet is a fine composition, then its C minor companion is, if anything, finer still. This time the work is cast in four movements. Stanford begins with a movement marked Allegro molto moderato ma energico. Apparently, the big, strong opening includes a quotation from Haydn’s Quartet op 76/2, the ‘Fifths’, a work that was frequently performed by the Joachim Quartet – it will be recalled that this work was Stanford’s “little tribute” to Joachim. The music strikes me as being more serious in tone, more probing than what we’ve heard in Op 85. The second subject is more lyrical, though still serious in countenance. Both ideas are resourcefully developed and exploited by Stanford.

As in Op 85, Stanford turns to the theme and variations format for his slow movement. This is a most interesting movement and, as Jeremy Dibble asserts, it’s “brilliantly scored” for the instruments. I admired and enjoyed the whole movement but I found the hushed conclusion especially winning. The Scherzo is, by some distance, the shortest movement. The music is delightfully light on its feet and it never seems to pause for breath. The finale has a gravely imposing Adagio introduction. This gives way (1:25) to the main body of the movement, marked Allegro giusto. Once again, Stanford’s structure is ingenious. The essence of the movement is a rondo, the theme of which, in Dibble’s words, “throbs with an autumnal mellowness”. Interspersed with the rondo is a scherzino episode, first heard at 3:10. The final appearance of the rondo theme (7:03) is very impressive and it leads to an energetic, quick coda. This C minor Quintet is a significant composition and I’m very glad that I’ve had the opportunity to hear it.

To complete the disc, cellist Richard Jenkinson teams up with pianist Benjamin Frith for the Three Intermezzi, Op 13, which, like the C minor Quintet here get a first recording. Stanford composed them in late 1879 for Francis Galpin, a clarinettist, who was a student at Trinity College, Cambridge between 1877 and 1883. Galpin and Stanford first performed them in Cambridge in February 1880. Subsequently, when the pieces were published by Novello the publishers insited on marketing the pieces not only for violin as an alternative but also for cello. The Intermezzi are modest pieces but they’re most attractive, especially the first of them, an Andante espressivo with a quicker central section. Jenkinson and Frith play these little pieces very well indeed.

Stanford’s string quintets are very well worth hearing and they receive terrific performances from these five players. Though the F major work has been recorded before, the C minor is an important addition to Stanford’s representation on disc and, of course, it’s extremely convenient – and valuable – to have the two works on the same CD. Paul Arden-Taylor has recorded the performances in extremely good sound and, as ever, Jeremy Dibble’s notes offer an ideal and authoritative introduction to the music.

This is a most valuable and substantial appendix to the Dante Quartet’s splendid survey of Stanford’s string quartets.

John Quinn

Previous review: Stephen Greenbank

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