The RTÉ Vanbrugh Quartet, with the support of Garth Knox (viola) and Piers Lane (piano), continue their excellent survey of Stanford’s neglected chamber works (String Quartet Nos 1 & 2 were released earlier this year on CDA67434) with this recording of his String Quintet No 1 and Piano Quintet.
Growing up in his native Dublin in the 1850s and ’60s, Stanford was no stranger to high-quality chamber music, even if visits to Ireland’s capital by pre-eminent executants of the genre were sporadic. As a teenager he recalled with affection and excitement the solo recitals of Anton Rubinstein, Sigismund Thalberg and Charles Hallé, and string players such as Camillo Sivori, Ludwig Straus, Henry Vieuxtemps, Alfredo Piatti and of course Joseph Joachim, a friend of his father.
Stanford’s passion and mastery of the idiom are evident in the substantial catalogue of chamber music he produced throughout his life. His invigorating Piano Quintet dates from 1886 and transports its audience from melancholy introspection (the first two movements are in minor keys) to extrovert joy and optimism; the buoyant, richly scored String Quintet No 1—declared by Parry to be an ‘admirable piece of work’—introduces elaborate ornamental figurations resembling traditional Irish singing.
The substantial catalogue of Stanford’s chamber music bears witness to the fact that it was a medium which he clearly valued, not only for its intimacy, but, perhaps more importantly, for the intellectual challenges it posed to the creative artist. An early, unpublished Piano Trio in G major (now missing), probably written during his period of study in Leipzig in the last six months of 1874 and performed at a chamber concert of the Cambridge University Musical Society on 4 March 1875, was his first significant foray in the composition of a large-scale work. Moreover, as most young composers understood to their advantage, the chamber idiom also afforded the opportunity of performance (unlike the more ambitious and costly exigencies of the orchestra or the theatre), made easier by the fact that in Stanford’s case he, as a capable pianist, could take part in the execution of his own works. After his studies in Germany, Stanford returned to Cambridge in January 1877 brim full of creative energy. He had ideas for a first opera, he had completed his First Symphony, and ideas for two sonatas, for cello (Op 9) and violin (Op 11), quickly took shape. These two sonatas, published in Germany, marked the beginning of a phase of new creative assurance in which the composer’s admiration for Schumann was rapidly conjoined with a more organic process of composition encouraged by his Berlin teacher Friedrich Kiel. Moreover, Stanford enjoyed the good fortune and prestige of having his sonatas played by well-established performers. The Cello Sonata was first performed by Robert Hausmann, the great German virtuoso, in London on 1 May 1877, the Violin Sonata by the Austrian Ludwig Straus in Cambridge on 18 May the same year. On each occasion Stanford was the pianist.
Two years later, in April 1879, the Piano Quartet No 1 in F major, Op 15, was completed, a work dedicated to the operatic impresario Ernst Frank who later produced Stanford’s grand opera The Veiled Prophet of Khorassan in Hannover in February 1881. This ambitious work was first given at the first series of Hans Richter’s ‘Festival Concerts’. The first, second and fourth of these concerts were for orchestra, but the third, on 8 May, was devoted entirely to chamber music and songs and was played by an ensemble that included not only the promoter of the Richter concerts, the violinist Hermann Franke, but also the pianist Xaver Scharwenka. Three years later the work was published in Germany by Bote & Bock, the firm who had published his Cello Sonata. The enthusiastic reception that had greeted the Piano Quartet, and the kudos gained by its London performance (and others that followed), encouraged Stanford to set his sights even higher to the epic genre of the piano quintet, a genre which had already established a reputation for heroic expression in the works of Schumann and Brahms.
By the mid-1880s Stanford was a composer of three operas (which had met with distinctly mixed success), two symphonies, songs, some highly original church music, as well as the chamber works mentioned above. Professionally his confidence and reputation, both nationally and internationally, had grown appreciably, and his standing as a conductor of the Cambridge University Musical Society and the Bach Choir (as well as guest appearances with the Philharmonic Society and other orchestras around the country) was also in the ascendant. It was at this crucial juncture, buoyed up by the high repute he enjoyed among his colleagues, that he began his grandest chamber work, the Piano Quintet in D minor Op 25. ‘I look forward to your Quintet with great interest’, wrote Joseph Joachim to Stanford on 7 February 1886; within four days Stanford had written back to his friend to confirm that he had already finished the first three movements and that the finale was already partially written. Joachim, a regular visitor to Cambridge and probably the most important musical influence in Stanford’s career, had always given much attention to the young Irish composer’s music. He had given advice to Stanford during the composition of an early student violin concerto in 1875 and, in 1876, had acted as an adjudicator for a symphony competition at the Alexandra Palace in which Stanford’s entry (his First Symphony) had won second prize. Their friendship had blossomed in the 1870s when Stanford was studying in Germany, and after Stanford’s return to Cambridge in January 1877 a professional relationship flourished, especially after the eyes of England had rested on Cambridge for the first English performance of Brahms’s First Symphony and Joachim’s honorary doctorate at the university. For his part, Stanford had always been an admirer of Joachim’s playing. He had heard him as a youngster in Dublin in the 1860s and later in Berlin when the Joachim Quartet had premiered Brahms’s String Quartet in B flat major, Op 67. It was therefore perhaps inevitable that Joachim would be the focus and dedicatee of several of Stanford’s works, but the fact that the first dedication was the Piano Quintet clearly revealed that the composer wished the work to act both as a major tribute and a lasting debt of gratitude to his mentor.
Stanford’s Piano Quintet was completed at the beginning of March 1886 and Joachim, who came to Cambridge that same month to play Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, was able to hear an informal play-through at Stanford’s home. It was first performed on 10 June 1886 under the aegis of the Cambridge University Musical Society at the Cambridge Guildhall when Stanford again appeared as the pianist. It was published not by a German firm but by Novello, who, in doing so, clearly believed that the work was an important one to have in their catalogue. Their business instincts served them well: the Quintet proved to be widely played in England and abroad, attracting pianists such as Hallé, Dannreuther, Heckmann and Coenen.
Clearly influenced by the ambitious scale of the quintets by Schumann and Brahms, Stanford conceived his work on a grand scale in which an overarching narrative – the first two movements in minor keys, the last two in major – transported his audience from melancholy introspection to extrovert joy and optimism. D minor was for Stanford a key of troubled rumination (his Second Symphony, subtitled ‘Elegiac’ and probably written in memory of his father, inhabits the same tonal world) and this is evident in the dark, almost sinister opening of the first movement, a massive, intellectual essay of Doric proportions which, like the first movement of Brahms’s F minor Quintet, Op 34, has a complex matrix of organically linked thematic motifs and tonal relationships. Within the highly polyphonic and at times dense texture, Stanford, with his insistence on the dominant and submediant steps of the scale (A–B flat – note especially the retrograde at the beginning of the development), almost seems to paraphrase Brahms’s similar preoccupation with the same structural motif in his own Piano Quintet; and the second subject suggests a tribute to Schumann both in the manner of its introduction by the solo cello and the accompanying harmony.
The movement ends with a glimmer of optimism, but for the jig-like Scherzo, in G minor, we are plunged back into a disturbing, demonic frame of mind, unsettled by the shifting metres, irregular phrase patterns and the fluid tonality. Temporary relief is provided by the simpler ‘folk-song’ style of the Trio which hovers between the dominants of G and B, but in the background disquieting undercurrents of the demonic jig lurk in the cello and viola.
With the slow movement, couched in B flat major (a significant motivic link with the first movement), the shadows begin to lift as the euphony of Stanford’s great gift for self-developing lyrical melody is given room to expand. Indeed, such is the richness of Stanford’s contrapuntal conception, one almost senses that, like Brahms in his quintet, the composer moves beyond the medium of string quartet and piano to one of orchestral grandeur, an impression reinforced by the massive architecture of the second subject (similar in its manner to the magnificent slow movement of Parry’s Piano Quartet, published in 1884). Later corresponding movements of Stanford’s third, fifth and sixth symphonies, which display an overwhelming mastery of melodic inspiration, suggest in fact that this movement may well have been an important template.
Building on the aspiration of the slow movement, the finale provides a grand, radiant conclusion in which D major, a key with such strong associations of joy and elation, has special significance. Here Stanford’s musical ideas have an invigorating muscularity and rhythmical drive, features which are emphasized in the second group and even more so in the enthralling developmental phase. This vitalizing energy, which serves to expel the gloom of the first half of the work, gives the movement a compelling sense of momentum, and to the work as a whole an aura of self-assurance that would infuse Stanford’s next large-scale instrumental work, the ‘Irish’ Symphony of 1887.
After the Piano Quintet, Stanford’s corpus of chamber music continued to flourish with major works for Hans von Bülow (the Piano Trio No 1, Op 35) and Alfredo Piatti (the Cello Sonata No 2, Op 39). In 1891 he produced his first two string quartets, Opp 44 and 45, which proved to be the beginning of a major cycle of eight works, several of them written with Joachim in mind and two them bearing his dedication (No 3, Op 64, for the Joachim Quartet, and No 5, Op 104, written in his memory). The quartets have been little known until the recent performances by the Allegri Quartet of the String Quartet No 1 during Stanford’s sesquicentenary year in 2002 and the recent recordings of the first and second quartets by the RTÉ Vanbrugh Quartet (on), which affirmed the extraordinarily high quality of the works both in terms of their material and idiomatic conception.
Stanford's two string quintets Opp 85 and 86 were also intended for performance by Joachim and his quartet colleagues. The String Quintet No 1 in F major Op 85 was finished in Malvern (where Stanford often holidayed) on 21 April 1903. The publishing company of Houghton and Co made the work available in parts (a more commercially feasible option often practised by publishers) but the score remained in manuscript. A set was sent to Joachim who was informed by the composer that the String Quintet No 2 in C minor, Op 86, was also being written ‘as a little tribute’ to the violinist’s sixtieth visit to England. The String Quintet No 1 was given its premiere by the Kruse Quartet with E Tomlinson (second viola) at a Popular Concert at St James’s Hall on 11 January 1904. Parry, who was often critical of Stanford’s music, called it an ‘admirable piece of work’. This and the Second Quintet (which was performed by the Joachim Quartet, first in Berlin and later in London on 5 May 1904) were among the last of Stanford’s works to be heard at St James’s Hall before it was demolished in 1905 (much to Stanford’s chagrin) to make way for the Piccadilly Hotel.
Conceived in three movements (like Brahms’s String Quintet No 1, Op 88, in the same key), the First Quintet begins with a buoyant, flowing, exultant Allegro, full of warmth and rich scoring (here, as in his orchestral scoring, Stanford shows a felicity gleaned largely from Mendelssohn, which so clearly distinguishes his style from the heavier manner of Brahms). The Andante drew critical attention for its assimilation of Irish traditional music. Drawing its elaborate ornamental figurations from the old style of singing from the south-west of Ireland (now referred to as ‘sean nós’), the movement is a lament which demands a good deal of rubato and liberal treatment of the metre. ‘[Kruse] played it very “free”’, Stanford pointed out to Joachim ‘and I think it gained by it greatly.’ Stanford elected to merge the scherzo and finale into one larger superstructure whose construction was governed by an overarching scheme of a theme and variations. The third movement itself consists of a series of expanding variations that moves from F major through D minor to D major. This shift to D facilitates an unexpected reprise of the slow movement which is restated almost operatically (Stanford marks it ‘quasi recit.’) above a tremolando accompaniment. After the memory of the lament has receded, the first viola breaks into a much more extended sonata movement in 9/8 time (characteristic of the ‘hop jig’) whose primary material is based on the original theme of the Andante. This is the finale proper and functions cleverly in several ways: first, it provides a fitting conclusion to the larger variation scheme; secondly, it functions subtly as a recapitulation of the F–D dialectic established in the earlier variations; and thirdly, it affords a telling conclusion to the broader architectonic contrast of the first two movements (also in F major and D minor respectively), a relationship Stanford surely wished us to grasp through two further allusions to the lament theme of the second movement in the recapitulation and coda.
Jeremy Dibble © 2005