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Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
String Quartet No. 3 in D minor, Op. 64 (1896) [26:45]
String Quartet No. 4 in G minor, Op. 99 (1906) [28:04]
String Quartet No. 7 in C minor, Op. 166 (1918/19) [21:32]
Dante Quartet
rec. 2017/18, St Nicolas Parish Church, Thames Ditton, UK

I admired and enjoyed Volume 1 in this series which included the Fifth and Eighth Quartets (review) so I was very glad to receive this next instalment in the series. Stanford’s quartets were previously unknown to me and getting to know them through the Dante Quartet’s recordings is proving to be a most rewarding voyage of discovery. The booklet essay is by the Stanford expert, Jeremy Dibble, on whose knowledge I shall draw in appraising these performances. All the quartets on the present disc are receiving their first recordings and I think I’m right in saying that No 3 is the only one of them that has been published.

The Third was mostly composed while Stanford was on holiday in Italy in 1896. Like its two companions on this disc, it’s cast in four movements. Jeremy Dibble uses the word “stern” to describe the first movement. I know what he means: there’s no denying the rigour and purpose; however, it seems to me that there’s a degree of cheerfulness also. The writing for four strings in animated conversation is very assured: this is a fine movement. After such a rigorous beginning it’s good that Stanford provides a somewhat calmer second movement. This isn’t a scherzo; rather, it’s marked Allegretto semplice and the movement might perhaps be compared, in tone and structural terms, to comparable movements in some of the Brahms symphonies. The music is predominantly lyrical but there are some strongly rhythmical passages too. The third movement is the longest. The marking is Andante (quasi Fantasia) and the reference to ‘Fantasia’ gives a clue to what seems to me to be a certain freedom of form. The music is introspective and, indeed, it becomes quite searching at times (try around 4:00). The quartet was dedicated to the Joachim Quartet and Jeremy Dibble is surely right to suggest that Stanford had the great violin virtuoso in mind when writing this movement’s first violin part. The finale is abundant in energy; the music is dance-like and a good deal is made of dotted rhythms. This quartet seems to me to be a notable composition and the Dante Quartet give a splendid account of it.

The Fourth Quartet followed ten years later and, as Jeremy Dibble relates, a Joachim connection might be said to link it to its predecessor. The link comes in the shape of violinist Johan Kruse (1859-1927), who was Australian by birth. He came to Europe in 1875 and studied with Joachim. He was a member of the Joachim Quartet for much of the 1890s and in that capacity he took part in the premiere of Stanford’s Third Quartet. He formed his own ensemble, the Kruse Quartet, based in London, in the late 1890s – its founding violist was Lionel Tertis – and it was Kruse and his colleagues who premiered the Fourth Quartet in 1907. The work is dedicated to Kruse. Unpublished, the work is here performed in an edition by Colleen Ferguson.

The first movement is an extensive creation based on two primary ideas, the first somewhat rhetorical in nature, the second lyrical. Both themes have a lot of potential which Stanford exploits inventively in an impressive movement. There follows a light-footed, good natured scherzo. Jeremy Dibble rightly describes the Adagio movement as “deeply felt”. The music is characterised by an air of noble melancholy and the Dante Quartet plays it very eloquently. We need a contrast after that and Stanford provides it in the shape of a vigorous, jig-like finale. Here the music is very dynamic, as is the playing. The Dante’s performance of this quartet is first rate.

The Seventh Quartet was composed probably in late 1918 or the first weeks of 1919, Jeremy Dibble believes: it was finished in time for a performance by four students at the Royal College of Music at the end of February 1919. It seems that was the last time the work was heard until 1974 when the Alberni Quartet played it twice in performances to mark the 50th anniversary of Stanford’s death. Has it been heard since then? Quite possibly not because Prof. Dibble has prepared the work for this recording, using a set of manuscript parts deposited at Newcastle University.

He describes the opening movement, very justly, as “a stern contrapuntal affair”. That said, the music is still very attractive and it also strikes me as being expertly laid out for the four instruments. The Andante has gravely lyrical outer sections. In the middle some faster, more restless material is presented and developed. The very ending of the movement is hushed and affecting. Two short movements conclude the Quartet. First comes a high-energy Scherzo. The finale, which is easily the shortest finale of the three to be heard on this disc, is based on two lively dances, one of them a jig. The whirlwind coda brings the work to a very spirited conclusion.

The three quartets on this disc are all very impressive compositions. Stanford displays a natural affinity with the string quartet as a form and his writing for the four instruments is always completely assured and full of interest for the listener. The Dante Quartet plays splendidly throughout; I enjoyed their performances very much indeed. Engineer Paul Arden-Taylor has recorded them expertly, allowing all four of the instrumental voices to register clearly and in excellent equilibrium. Jeremy Dibble’s notes are authoritative, as you’d expect. I now look forward very much to the completion of the cycle with the first two Quartets and the Sixth; the latter, I’m fairly sure, will be another first recording.

John Quinn

Previous reviews: Michael Cookson ~ Nick Barnard

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