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Piano Quintet in D minor, Op 25
March 1886; first performed on 10 June 1886 at the Cambridge Guildhall, the composer at the piano

'Stanford: Piano Quintet & String Quintet No 1' (CDH55434)
Stanford: Piano Quintet & String Quintet No 1
Buy by post £5.50 CDH55434  Helios (Hyperion's budget label)  
Movement 1: Allegro moderato ma agitato
Track 1 on CDH55434 [13'07] Helios (Hyperion's budget label)
Movement 2: Scherzo: Allegro ma non troppo
Track 2 on CDH55434 [6'21] Helios (Hyperion's budget label)
Movement 3: Adagio espressivo
Track 3 on CDH55434 [9'32] Helios (Hyperion's budget label)
Movement 4: Allegro risoluto
Track 4 on CDH55434 [8'14] Helios (Hyperion's budget label)

Piano Quintet in D minor, Op 25
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 chamber works. 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.

from notes by Jeremy Dibble © 2005

Track-specific metadata
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Details for CDA67505 track 4
Allegro risoluto
Recording date
19 November 2004
Recording venue
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Andrew Keener
Recording engineer
Simon Eadon
Hyperion usage
  1. Stanford: Piano Quintet & String Quintet No 1 (CDA67505)
    Disc 1 Track 4
    Release date: November 2005
    Deletion date: July 2010
    Superseded by CDH55434
  2. Stanford: Piano Quintet & String Quintet No 1 (CDH55434)
    Disc 1 Track 4
    Release date: July 2013
    Helios (Hyperion's budget label)
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