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. 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.
from notes by Jeremy Dibble © 2005