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Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
String Quartet No. 1 in G major, Op. 44 (1891)
String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 45 (1891, prem. 1894)
String Quartet No. 6 in A minor, Op. 122 (1910)
Dante Quartet
rec. 2019, St Nicholas Parish Church, Thames Ditton, UK

This is the third and final volume in the Somm label’s series of Sir Charles Villiers Stanford’s complete string quartets. The album includes the world première recording of the Sixth Quartet and one wonders why such a high-quality work, written over a century ago, is only now being recorded for the first time.

The Dublin-born Stanford was renowned as a composition teacher at the Royal College of Music, as well as gaining acclaim in his lifetime as a conductor and composer, especially noted for his choral scores. Stanford was active in many genres, including the field of chamber music, and wrote an impressive total of eight String Quartets between the years 1891-1919. Half were published, the other half remained in manuscript. Stanford clearly took the responsibility of writing for the genre very seriously - he was aged almost forty before he commenced work on his First String Quartet, although he had by this time composed half a dozen chamber works. The influence of the legendary Hungarian virtuoso violinist and composer Joseph Joachim (1831-1907) provided a major stimulus for Stanford to compose his first five string quartets. 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, which performed throughout Europe.

Stanford composed his First String Quartet in 1891, whilst on holiday in the popular seaside resort of Llandudno. The score’s première was given by the Cambridge University Music Society (CUMS) Quartet, led by Richard Gompertz, at Newcastle in January 1892. This fluent and often enchanting score was written swiftly which, when hearing the quality of the music, is testament to Stanford’s impressive technical and imaginative facility. The first movement, Allegro assai, is striking for its fresh and breezy outdoor feel. The Scherzo, generally urgent and bustling, is variegated with agreeably melodic and elegant episodes of relative calm. The Largo movement communicates, with considerable restraint, a lingering melancholy. The Finale: Allegro molto, folk-like and in the spirit of the dance, brings the work to a songful close. In this final movement I identified what is undoubtedly Stanford acknowledging Schubert. There is a recurring eight note theme (track 4, first heard between points 0:44 to 0:54 and then repeated) which sounds identical to the first theme from the Scherzo of Schubert’s famous String Quintet in C major, D.956.

It is thought that Stanford’s Second String Quartet contains material planned for, but not used in, the contemporaneous First String Quartet. As with the First, much of the score was composed in Llandudno where it seems Stanford was writing a proportion of both works almost simultaneously – the published scores of both works are dated August 1891. Stanford completed the quartet at Gilling Rectory in Yorkshire, while staying with his amateur musician friend Percy Hudson. It bears a dedication to Richard Gompertz, leader of the CUMS Quartet, who introduced the work in February 1894 at Prince’s Hall, Piccadilly, London. This is a work of wide contrasts, shot through with emotion from beginning to end. I said in an earlier review that this is a quite wonderful quartet that warrants a place in the standard chamber repertory. The score opens with a movement of bewildering contrasts, ranging from the generally bold and extrovert to a calmer, more serious mood. Marked Prestissimo, the big boned but brief Scherzo, with its near relentless syncopations, is played with spirit. Notable is the beauty and sadness of the affecting Andante expressivo, contrasted with short episodes of tension and discord. The concluding Allegro molto movement is a jaunty romp, with its folk-dance rhythms strongly reminiscent of the music of Dvořák.

In August 1910, Stanford wrote his Sixth String Quartet quickly, as was often his wont, whilst enjoying a relaxing fishing break on the River Tyne at Chollerford, Northumberland. It is thought that the première was given in 1911 at Steinway Hall, London, during a Thomas Dunhill Chamber Concert. Following this, the three-movement score inexplicably lay forgotten in a drawer until it was revived in 1980 by the London String Quartet. Immediately striking in the opening movement, Allegro molto moderato, is the squally character of the writing, though there is also an underlying pastoral feel. The abiding emotion in the Andante quasi Lento is a pressing sense of pining, flanking a central section of a more restless, rather anxious disposition. Marked Allegro scherzando, the concluding movement is a combination of Scherzo and Finale. Breezily carefree with a dance-like quality, the writing becomes increasingly complex as it races headlong towards the finish line.

The Dante Quartet play splendidly throughout the album, with noticeably clean articulation and gratifying intonation. Unerringly accomplished, these Dante performances, combined with spirited interpretations that breathe vitality and enthusiasm, would pass the most rigorous examination. The engineering team, recording in St Nicholas Parish Church, Thames Ditton, has provided first class sound quality. Stanford biographer Jeremy Dibble has written the booklet notes.

In 2005, the RTÉ Vanbrugh Quartet released a welcome album of Stanford chamber music including first recordings of First and Second String Quartets on Hyperion (c/w Horn Fantasy), but these accounts by the Dante Quartet attain superior playing. Lovers of British music, and Stanford in particular, need not hesitate in acquiring this superb album.

Michael Cookson

Previous reviews: John Quinn ~ Jonathan Woolf

Dante Quartet: Krysia Osostowicz (violin) Oscar Perks (violin), Yuko Inoue (viola), Richard Jenkinson (cello)



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