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Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
String Quartet No. 3 in D minor, Op. 64 (1896) [26:41]
String Quartet No. 4 in G minor, Op. 99 (1906) [27:57]
String Quartet No. 7 in C minor, Op. 166 (1918-19) [21:13]
Dante Quartet
rec. 2017/18, St Nicolas Parish Church, Thames Ditton, UK

I reviewed the excellent Volume 1 in the Dante Quartet’s survey of the Stanford String Quartets back in November 2016 and have been looking forward to Volume 2 ever since. The good news is that this new disc is every bit the equal of the earlier one in terms of performance, recording and presentation. I cannot stress too highly how much work individually and collectively the players of the quartet must put into a project such as this to produce a disc that ultimately remains, for all its artistic excellence, a minority interest.

Each new disc of Stanford’s music refutes further any sense of him being just a competent composer in the thrall of Austro-Germanic models whose fame mainly rests on his pupils rather than himself. Whilst both of those statements contain substantial elements of truth discs such as this show Stanford to be far more than just competent and with a musical voice of his own. Yes, an innocent ear might well lean towards a central European ‘home’ for this music but no-one would doubt the craft and skill of the composition. Jeremy Dibble's exemplary liner note expresses this well: “the idiom of the string quartet was always a serious challenge for Stanford ...... [demonstrating] structural subtlety, thematic imagination and brilliant ensemble writing. This Stanford undoubtedly learnt from the examples of the 19th-century German canon - and especially the three quartets of Brahms.” But there does linger the question that at heart Stanford was happy to reinforce rather than challenge convention and perhaps ultimately that is why much of his music struggles to be more widely known today.

From the opening bars of String Quartet No 3 in D minor Stanford’s mastery of the genre is not in doubt. No real surprise, given that he was over 40 before he attempted his first quartet - curiously Dibble gets his maths wrong in his first sentence when he states that Stanford was nearly 50 in 1891 when his essayed the form for the first time. Dibble’s description of No.3 as “hot blooded and big boned” is spot-on and the Dante’s performance fits that description perfectly too. The work was written for the famed Joachim Quartet and I doubt even that stellar ensemble played it with more brilliance than here. Certainly, leader Krysia Osotowicz plays the demanding first violin parts in quartets 3 & 4 with flair and complete technical authority. The strength of these works is in the part writing and the distribution of the musical argument so, in fact, equal credit must go to all members of the Dante Quartet for the confident brilliance of their collective playing. The shade of Brahms does hover over these works and No.3 especially. The second movement Allegretto semplice written here in place of a scherzo reminds me of the minuets Brahms wrote for his orchestral Serenades – therfe’s a similar flowing gentle lyricism. Dibble again points to the slow movement Andante (quasi fantasia) as having a freer feel, which Dibble believes to have been written specifically with Joachim in mind. This is also the longest movement in this quartet and both the most individual and impressive. The focus and intensity of the Dantes is again wholly impressive. The finale has the slightly odd tempo indication Allegro feroce ma non tanto - so in essence “fast and furious .... but not too much”. If that reads as if caught between two stools so it sounds - and really not at all ferocious. The Dantes are excellent at keeping the dotted rhythms tightly pointed. This allows for a maximum contrast with the flowing second subject before the return of the dotted figurations (actually written in the parts as 16th notes / semiquavers with 32nd / demi-semiquaver rests but the ear hears it as dotted) in unison drives the piece to a dramatic close.

The 4th quartet dates from nearly a decade later and is dedicated to Johann Kruse who was an ex-Joachim pupil and had been 2nd violin in the Joachim quartet which premiered No.3. After his years in the Joachim Quartet Kruse based himself in London and was active in many strands of musical life, premiering several Stanford works. Unlike No.3 (the scores of Nos. 1-3 & 5 can be viewed on IMSLP), Quartet No.4 is unpublished. Dibble again hears in the lead violin part acknowledgement of the dedicatee. Still in the traditional four movements, this is a more searching work than its predecessor. Harmonically it is more fluid although it does little to challenge the overtly modern works produced around 1906 – the same year as works as diverse as Elektra, the Schoenberg Chamber Symphonies and Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro.

Dibble usefully outlines the complex shifting harmony, but it is a credit to both composer and especially the performers here, that the ear hears little of the difficulty it takes to effectively move through the keys as the music does. The scherzo is placed second again, more energised and lilting than in No.3 and it takes the form of varying the basic material, not true variations as such. The slow movement is third and marked Adagio. Again, there is a distinct sense that this is the emotional heart of the work and again it is beautifully played by the Dantes. I did wonder if this music could take being played several notches slower on the metronome but at whatever speed it is played this is an impressive movement. So, too, is the scampering jig-finale. A real tour-de-force for the entire quartet with the instruments chasing one another’s tails. I find this to be a more wholly satisfying conclusion to the work than the equivalent movement in No.3.

The final quartet offered on this disc is No.7 and for this work Oscar Perks takes over the first violin chair. Twelve more years had passed and to be honest, Stanford’s music sounds even more out of touch with modern trends. Perhaps this is why the first performance was now given by a student quartet rather than the giants of the previous ages. The sheer craft of the writing is never in doubt, and the fluency of the performance here is again of the highest order. Dibble argues persuasively about the qualities of the work but I find myself admiring it rather than loving it. Certainly, that is in no way a comment on the quality of its presentation or recording here. The pair of central movements are again well-contrasted and the finale is another jig-like piece with Stanford playing around with meter and accentuation. It brings the disc to a rousing and energetic conclusion.

Somm’s engineering and documentation are of the expected highest order and match the playing of the Dante Quartet, who are quite excellent throughout. I imagine a volume three will complete the survey and for that we will be indebted to all, because I cannot conceive of other ensembles investing the time or effort in such a project let alone producing better results. I still hold out hopes that a quartet might take up the challenge of completing the abortive cycle of the John McEwan quartets started on Chandos. The Dantes have all the musical resources to be that quartet and I have to say I find McEwan to be a much more intriguing writer for this instrumental grouping than Stanford. McEwan was no radical himself but he pushed the boundaries of how a quartet could sound much more than Stanford.

Superb performances of interesting and enjoyable but ultimately rather conservative music.

Nick Barnard

Previous review: Michael Cookson



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