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Hyperion Records

CDA67434 - Stanford: String Quartets Nos 1 & 2
Harvesting at Pangbourne on Thames (detail) by Henry Parker (1858-1930)
Private Collection / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: September 2003
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: February 2005
Total duration: 68 minutes 3 seconds

'These exemplary first recordings make the best possible case for all this rare material; sound and balance are first-class, too. A strongly recommendable issue, in sum, extensively annotated by Jeremy Dibble. Can we expect further instalments?' (Gramophone)

'These beautifully crafted and attractive string quartets, clearly indebted to Brahms and Mendelssohn, receive highly committed performances. The Fantasy for Horn and String Quartet, one of Stanford's last compositions, proves to be an unexpected bonus' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Jeremy Dibble's notes are excellent, as is the recording. On balance, this is a very worth-while issue of first-rate British chamber music which does not deserve the neglect which has befallen it' (International Record Review)

'This is fine music, beautifully played' (The Sunday Times)

'These two quartets are alive with melodic invention and supremely crafted … Stephen Stirling is a sweet-toned soloist alongside the consistently stylish playing of this fine Irish quartet' (Classic FM Magazine)

'The string quartet writing here reveals the composer at his most fecund and imaginative. The highly adept RTÉ Vanbrugh Quartet, which hails from Stanford's native Dublin, brings a terrific energy to these appetising works' (The Strad)

'The playing on this new Hyperion release is flawless, and their tonal palette perfect for Stanford's music. Stephen Stirling's horn in the Fantasy is warm and glowing. This is very highly recommended, and with a plea to the Vanbrugh and Hyperion for Stanford's remaining six quartets' (Fanfare, USA)

'If Stanford's other six [quartets] are as good as the two recorded here, unbelievably for the first time, they are all long overdue for revival' (Birmingham Post)

String Quartets Nos 1 & 2
Allegro assai  [8'49]
Allegro molto  [5'31]
Prestissimo  [2'35]
Allegro molto  [7'29]

Think of Stanford and the genre of the string quartet probably won’t come to mind. But he composed no fewer than eight such works over a twenty-eight year period, inspired by his friendship with the great violinist Joseph Joachim. Stanford had already composed a number of large-scale chamber works before he began his first string quartet in the summer of 1891, when he was thirty-nine; the second string quartet followed immediately during a burst of dazzling creativity. Both quartets are serious, big-boned works that show Stanford’s mastery of the idiom and ability as a contrapuntist, although they generally display textures that are lighter and more transparent than the thicker palette of Brahms (with whom Stanford is sometimes compared). These delightful works also reveal Stanford’s love of song and lyricism. Throughout, the RTÉ Vanbrugh Quartet plays with a rare sensitivity and a natural eloquence.

The Horn Fantasy—a later work, dating from 1922—is dramatic, compelling and flawlessly written for the genre (a rare combination of instruments and quite possibly composed as a tribute to Mozart, whom Stanford greatly admired), and it is superbly played by Stephen Stirling.

All works are here recorded for the first time.

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Charles Villiers Stanford (1852–1924) is little associated with the genre of the string quartet even though over a period of twenty-eight years (1891 to 1919) he composed no fewer than eight, all of them substantial in their creative commitment and craftsmanship. Indeed, in his later years, when Stanford began to inveigh outspokenly about the degeneracy of musical modernism, the quartet became for him a symbol of classical purity and compositional sanity, a fact evidenced in the last two quartets (No 7 in C minor, Op 166, dating probably from late 1918 or early 1919, and No 8 in E minor, Op 167, completed on 25 June 1919). Moreover, the quartet undoubtedly served as an aesthetic link with an artistic world from which Stanford drew his principal inspiration and energy, a world which had been enriched by Joseph Joachim who, until his death in 1907, had acted as Stanford’s personal mentor. During Stanford’s early years in Dublin in the 1850s and 1860s, Joachim had been a visitor to the Stanford home in Herbert Street, and the young Stanford, a budding violin student of R M Levey (violinist at the Theatre Royal), would avidly follow the ‘Classical Quartet Concerts’ in which Levey and Joachim played together. Later, as a prominent musician at Cambridge, Stanford did much to encourage quartet playing. Initially he did this through the foundation of a student quartet at Trinity College, known as the ‘First Stanford Quartet’, but later, as he moved into the first phase of his maturity, he revelled in the visits of Joachim, who performed annually for the Cambridge University Musical Society chamber concerts and in London at the Monday Popular Concerts at the St James’s Hall. Last, Stanford remained a major advocate of the style and supremacy of Joachim’s own string quartet. Whenever he was in Berlin (and later when the Joachim Quartet visited London), Stanford would attend the Joachim Quartet’s concerts. There he became closely acquainted with the repertoires of Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn and Brahms, and on one occasion, in October 1876, he heard the premiere of Brahms’s Quartet in B flat, Op 67.

It is perhaps an indication of the gravity with which Stanford approached the string quartet—all his works reveal an earnestness in their ‘big-boned’ designs—that he did not attempt a work in the genre until he was almost thirty-nine years old. By then he was a successful composer of many large-scale chamber works (namely the Cello Sonata No 1, Op 9, the Violin Sonata No 1, Op 11, the Piano Quartet No 1, Op 15, the Piano Quintet, Op 25, the Piano Trio No 1, Op 35 and the Cello Sonata No 2, Op 39), each of them composed for prominent European virtuosos such as Robert Hausmann, Ludwig Straus, Ernst Frank, Joachim, Hans von Bülow and Alfredo Piatti, who all duly performed them in Britain and on the Continent. In addition, all of Stanford’s chamber works to date had been published by the main publishing houses in Leipzig with the exception of only one work, the Piano Quintet, which was taken on by Novello in London.

The main impetus behind the composition of Stanford’s first five string quartets was either directly or indirectly connected with Joachim. The String Quartet No 3, Op 64, was dedicated to the Joachim Quartet, who performed the work in Berlin, and the String Quartet No 5, Op 104, completed in November 1908, was written ‘In Memoriam Joseph Joachim’ who died on 15 August 1907. Joachim was undoubtedly privy to the progress of the first two string quartets, at least one of which (No 2) he tried over in Berlin with his quartet. The task of performing them fell, however, to Joachim’s pupil Richard Gompertz, and the String Quartet No 4, Op 99 (1906), was dedicated to and performed by another illustrious pupil, Johann Kruse, who also did much to promote Stanford’s chamber music in London (notably the Serenade (Nonet), Op 95, and the String Quintet No 1, Op 85). It seems more than likely that the appointment of Richard Gompertz as resident violinist in Cambridge in 1889 (to assist the coaching of string players for the CUMS orchestra and to perform in the CUMS series of Wednesday ‘Pops’) helped to increase the flow of Stanford’s creative juices. Gompertz was not long in Cambridge before he founded the Cambridge University Musical Society Quartet, an ensemble which soon augmented the repertoire of string quartets in CUMS concert programmes. But what finally released Stanford’s creative imagination was a commission from the Newcastle Chamber Music Society (a body which exists to this day) to provide them with a new work.

The String Quartet, Op 44, was completed in August 1891 during a family holiday to Llandudno, a popular seaside resort for middle-class Victorians in North Wales. His time at Llandudno provided a period of relative respite, for in the months beforehand Stanford had found himself driven almost frantic by the pressures of CUMS and commissions for other musical bodies. In June Cambridge University conferred, at Stanford’s suggestion, an honorary doctorate on Dvorák, who also directed a concert of his own music at the Cambridge Guildhall. Yet little did the public know that Dvorák had been on the point of cancelling his visit after picking up a London newspaper in Prague and reading the news of an influenza epidemic in England. Fortunately Stanford was able to convince his Czech colleague that the epidemic had passed but, more pressingly, that the Music Faculty would face shame and disgrace if he was not to come. With Dvorák’s visit over, Stanford plunged himself into final preparations of Eden, his oratorio due to be performed at the Birmingham Festival in October, and he also made the final touches to his second choral ballad, The Battle of the Baltic, which Richter premiered in London on 20 July. This work, however, did not enjoy the same impact on audiences as The Revenge at Leeds in 1886.

Like so many of Stanford’s works, Op 44 was written rapidly. The first movement was dated ‘15 August 1891’, the second movement was completed three days later and the last movement was signed off on 22 August; it was typical of the composer’s extraordinary facility. Much of the String Quartet No 2 in A minor, Op 45, clearly intended to form a counterpart to Op 44, was also composed in Llandudno. Four days after the completion of the first String Quartet, the first movement of No 2 was already finished, followed promptly by the second and third movements on 30 August and 1 September respectively. An interruption to this breathtaking industry then followed as Stanford attended first the Three Choirs Festival at Hereford to hear The Battle of the Baltic, and later the Hovingham Festival in Yorkshire where he stayed with his friend and amateur musician Percy Hudson at Gilling Rectory. It was here, on 25 September, that the String Quartet No 2 was finally completed.

Both the Op 44 and Op 45 Quartets reveal Stanford’s mastery of the idiom and his consummate ability as a contrapuntist. In terms of textural and technical felicity Stanford learned his lessons from Mozart and Haydn (whose works he undoubtedly played as a youngster in Dublin) and from Mendelssohn (who is a clear influence in his orchestral writing for strings). These lighter, more transparent textures which inhabit Stanford’s quartet style set them apart from Brahms’s heavier palette. Moreover, Stanford’s inclination towards song and lyricism, a feature of his orchestral works, is also much in evidence in his chamber music (as can be witnessed for example in his masterpiece, the Serenade (Nonet), Op 95), and although one can immediately sense the vigorous and fertile organic process in each spacious movement, there is nevertheless a prevailing sense of melodic euphony at the heart of the creative process. In terms of the instrumental concept, Stanford took his lead from Beethoven. This can be adduced not only from his exceptionally dexterous and inventive manipulation of the quartet’s range and richness, but also from the numerous examples of Beethoven’s work that he cited in his student primer, Musical Composition, published in 1911. Here Stanford stressed the need for a proper understanding of the quartet’s potential. While there was less opportunity for colourful effect beyond the characterful attributes of the three types of stringed instrument, there were nevertheless abundant possibilities for contrapuntal resourcefulness and chordal luxuriance (not possible on the piano), and, perhaps more importantly, ‘the vital importance of putting down as accurately on paper the degrees of force, variations of tone, bowings, slurs, legato and staccato marks, and changes of time’, to quote Stanford himself (p.116). Such attention to detail is borne out both in Stanford’s carefully prepared manuscripts, which are full of careful nuances, and, following the model of Beethoven’s late quartets, in the adroitness of the handling of the four instruments’ range and tone colour.

Textural invention is at once evident in the opening of the String Quartet No 1 in G major, Op 44, where a pleasing thematic idea in the first violin is supported by a duet of running quaver counterpoint in the second violin and viola with punctuating pizzicato crotchets in the cello. The idea is subsequently developed by the cello as the paragraph expands, both in range and melody, until Stanford brings us to a pivotal Neapolitan harmony. Here the metre slows temporarily as the dynamics fluctuate between p and fp on spacious minim chords before yielding to the cello’s second subject in the dominant. The second group consists of several thematic strands—a broad melody initiated by the cello though continued by the first violin, a dotted figure which becomes increasingly more prominent, and an imitative figure reminiscent of Dvorák’s Symphony No 6—all of which figure prominently in the expansive development. To close the exposition Stanford gives us a reprise of the Neapolitan harmony from the transition and, in Mozartian fashion, a brief restatement of the opening idea. The highly processual development and recapitulation truly reveal the ambitious scope and concept of Stanford’s attitude to ‘absolute music’. Over the course of almost a hundred bars there is a sense of ebb and flow as one mood gives way to another, where a seamless sense of progression and variation provides an underlying continuum for a series of episodes in which thematic strands from the exposition emerge in new guises. Moreover, Stanford’s innate instinct for drama surfaces not only at climaxes but also at points of tonal catastrophe, notable instances being the re-appearance of the second subject (in C minor) and further tranquil interpretation of this material in D flat, an event which serves to calm the development’s more agitated disposition. An impression of transformation and developing variation also permeates the recapitulation, most notably in the extended coda where expositional ‘memories’ and developmental transformations are given further oxygen.

The Scherzo owes its variational rondo form to Brahms’s Symphony No 2. Each of the rondo repeats gives a different ‘version’ of the opening idea, while two ‘trios’ (marked Presto) are interrelated by material although they differ in their metrical treatment. A broad, generous diatonic melody, so abundant in Stanford’s mature instrumental works, occupies a central place in the slow movement. On its return Stanford adds an equally sonorous countermelody in the viola, the added texture of which provides a platform for the second subject’s impassioned climax. A gigue-like spirit infuses the fugal opening of the finale and the contrapuntal demeanour of this movement is disrupted only momentarily by the longer note-values of the second subject (though even here the gigue rhythms continue to pervade the background). It is a movement for virtuosos and was no doubt written with the accomplishment of Gompertz’s CUMS Quartet (which included Haydn Inwards, Emil Kreuz and Charles Ould) in mind.

The first performance of the Op 44 Quartet, by the CUMS Quartet, took place in Newcastle on 22 January 1892. The composer was not there to hear it since, in the weeks immediately prior to the performance, the influenza epidemic, so feared by Dvorák, spread to Ireland and was responsible for the death of Stanford’s four closest relatives including his mother. But after a holiday convalescing in Limerick to recover what he described to J A Fuller Maitland as his ‘scattered and stunned senses’, he heard Gompertz and the quartet play the work in Cambridge on 17 February. It was given its London premiere at a Monday Popular Concert at St James’s Hall on 27 November 1893, with Lady Hallé, Alfred Gibson, Kreuz and Piatti, where it gained the approbation of Bernard Shaw.

The Op 44 Quartet was dedicated to the Newcastle Chamber Music Society. Fittingly, the String Quartet No 2 in A minor, Op 45, was dedicated ‘freundschaftlich’ to Richard Gompertz, whose character appears to be enshrined in the arabesque-like writing for the first violin in the slow movement. The premiere of Op 45 was given by Gompertz and the CUMS Quartet at the Prince’s Hall in Piccadilly on 13 February 1894. Again the work appealed to Shaw, who enthusiastically described it as ‘a genuine piece of absolute music, alive, with feeling from beginning to end, and free from those Stanfordian aberrations into pure cleverness which remind one so of Brahms’s aberrations into pure stupidity’. A number of further performances followed by the Musical Guild (an important promoter of British chamber music at the end of the nineteenth century), by Gompertz at a Monday Popular Concert and by Lady Hallé. By comparison with Op 44, the Op 45 Quartet is a work of more vivid contrasts and extremes. There is a marked disparity between the sinewy counterpoint of the first movement’s opening idea (which occurs ritornello-like throughout the movement) and the more poetic second subject in the submediant. Both these ideas, in different guises, haunt the rest of the work. The brisk, rhythmically dynamic Scherzo, marked Prestissimo, is a Beethovenian affair par excellence, stunningly scored for the quartet. As if to quell the irresistible excitement and élan of the previous movement, Stanford’s slow movement is a deeply felt, emotionally probing essay in which all the players of the quartet are provided with exposed and demanding roles in keeping with the reinterpretation of the first movement’s material expressed in a more extreme and passionate manner. A foil to the turbulence of the slow movement (which anticipates those powerful corresponding movements of the fifth and sixth symphonies) is furnished by the ‘Eastern European’ flavour of the finale’s irregular opening theme, though this jaunty material itself is contrasted vividly with the sonorous second subject (in F major, like the first movement) where Stanford, perhaps for the first time in this work, reveals his deference to Brahms.

It is presently not known for whom the Fantasy for Horn Quintet in A minor, completed on 6 June 1922, was composed, or whether it ever received a public performance (though it may have been intended for students at the Royal College of Music). Like its two counterparts for clarinet quintet written only months before (see Helios CDH55076), it follows a design in which elements of the traditional four-movement paradigm are telescoped into one larger structure. In addition, like those models of Schumann and Liszt, the construction depends chiefly on a central thematic strand (such as one hears at the beginning in the cello and horn) which occurs at strategic points in the structure and as a foundation for the derivation of other thematic material. Dramatic, compelling and flawlessly written for the genre (a rare combination of instruments and quite possibly composed as a tribute to Mozart, whom he greatly admired), Stanford’s quintet is yet a further example of the composer’s extraordinary technical savoir faire and his ability to be able to strike a fitting idiomatic equilibrium between instruments of such contrasting capacities.

Jeremy Dibble © 2005

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