Movement 1: Allegro moderato ma agitato
Movement 2: Scherzo: Allegro ma non troppo
Movement 3: Adagio espressivo
Movement 4: Allegro risoluto
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.
from notes by Jeremy Dibble © 2005