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Stanford String Quartets from the Dante Quartet
The Dante Quartet have recently completed a landmark project - recording all eight of the string quartets of Charles Villiers Stanford (a composer not widely known for his chamber works). String Quartet No. 6 has in fact never been recorded before, appearing here for the first time thanks to a new edition prepared by Stanford scholar Jeremy Dibble.
I spoke to violinist Krysia Osostowicz and to Jeremy about the culmination of this project, about the side of Stanford that is revealed in the quartets, and about their next steps.
Image credit: Jake Rowe
The first quartet was written shortly after Stanford had met Antonín Dvořák. Most analyses of Stanford’s writing tend to focus on Brahms and Schumann as the key influences on his style; do you think there’s any musical cross-pollination from Dvořák in this quartet as well?
KO: Quite possibly – but then Dvořák himself was so influenced by Brahms that the two streams merge together in Stanford’s music. Let’s not forget another essential quality which is all Stanford’s own, already apparent in the first quartet: the Irish twist.
JD: There is no doubt that Stanford was influenced by quite a lot of European 'voices' - Brahms, Schumann, Mendelssohn - but these quartets reveal how much he developed his own style in the genre. Stanford's own fluid lyricism, his understanding of the quartet genre (especially as a contrapuntal idiom) and his formal invention are second to none. I'm less convinced of a Dvořákian influence (this is more obvious in Coleridge-Taylor - one of his pupils).
To many musicians the name “Stanford” is naturally suffixed by “in…” and the name of a key, since his church music and particular settings of the Canticles (in Bb, A, C and so on) have tended to dominate his legacy. How do you think his orchestral and chamber pieces became so overshadowed?
JD: After the First World War a lot of music by Stanford and Parry (and even Elgar to a lesser extent) suffered major neglect in an age which chose to turn its back on the values of Anglo-German music, especially in the concert room. In the case of Stanford's quartets, the situation wasn't helped by the fact that four of the works remained unpublished and inaccessible. (The Sixth Quartet remains an unpublished work, and since its composition in 1910 and performance in 1911 it has been inaccessible to the public). It's probably only since the late 1980s that a new curiosity about the music of our late Victorian composers has emerged, and new generations with new ears have now rejected the baggage of post-WW1 generations and hear new, fresh invention in this music.
KO: When there is so much great music to choose from in the quartet repertoire, some of it is bound to be neglected for a while, but eventually interest is revived. The biggest challenge in Stanford’s quartet writing is in the complexity of the accompanying textures, which can easily obscure the melodic lines. We had to learn how to lighten the inner parts without losing the detail – helped enormously by Siva, our wonderful producer in the recording sessions. We hope that the work we did will encourage other players to understand and adopt the quartets as well.
The Quartets Nos. 1 and 2 have quite a close connection with the Cambridge University Music Society Quartet let by Richard Gompertz; how much do you think Stanford’s relationship with that particular quartet shaped his string-quartet writing in general?
JD: Hugely. Gompertz, a Joachim pupil, was employed by Cambridge to help with enhancing the university's musical environment - performing and teaching, CUMS orchestral and choral concerts - and helping to secure Cambridge's larger musical role in Britain (which was Stanford's aim as conductor of CUMS, organist at Trinity College, and Professor of Music from 1888). The first two quartets were almost certainly written with Gompertz's quartet in mind, though we shouldn't forget that Joachim, Stanford's mentor for many years, was also highly influential (re. Quartet No. 3 and Quartet No. 5).
Having now finished recording all six quartets, do you notice Stanford’s approach to the genre developing over his career?
JD: Yes, his style certainly matured between 1891 and 1919 and one can see how he began to experiment with more complex, sophisticated forms.
KO: Each of the quartets has its own distinct character. While the first quartet blossoms with fresh enthusiasm, the last (No. 8) is reminiscent of the darker aspects of Mendelssohn’s music. There are interesting comparisons to be made between Quartets Nos. 2 and 6, which share the key of A minor and appear side-by-side on the latest disc.
Do you think George Bernard Shaw’s accusation that Stanford was prone to being sidetracked by “aberrations into pure cleverness” has any truth to it?
KO: Yes, I think there is a grain of truth in this remark, though I should heretically admit to occasionally feeling something similar in certain passages of Brahms and Dvořák – the intellect taking over from the instinct. Stanford loves to craft a fiendishly complex fugue out of an Irish jig! There are many moments of pure inspiration in the quartets where you can feel either moved or entertained on the highest level, especially in the visionary slow movements and the whimsical scherzos. In the weighty opening movements and finales, which aim to pack a bigger punch, certain climactic passages sometimes build up almost too much complexity for the structure (and the players!) to bear, although that also generates its own energy and excitement.
JD: I think we have to take what Shaw said with a pinch of salt. We should remember what he thought of Brahms - as 'academic' - over which he later repented... This was the same level of 'judgment' he brought to 'Professor Stanford' as he often used to call him. It was just another of Shaw's prejudices against the establishment and it blinded him to the appreciation of true invention, especially in 'absolute music' of which the string quartet is a major representative.
This volume brings your complete Stanford cycle on Somm to a conclusion; can you tell us anything about your future plans?
KO: On the contrary, there is another disc, possibly the crowning glory of our Stanford cycle, yet to be released: the two string quintets. These are both truly inspired works, in which Stanford – perhaps rather like Mozart in his string quintets – seems to feel liberated by the addition of the second viola. We had a great time recording these quintets last December with two dear colleagues from the Endellion Quartet, Ralph de Souza and Garfield Jackson. They were unfamiliar with Stanford’s chamber music, but after the initial shock of grappling with the intricate and challenging string writing, they appreciated Stanford’s wonderful and original qualities as much as we do.
JD: The two string quintets are major works from 1903 and were probably written with Joachim's quartet (+ extra viola) in mind. They are substantial, rich and formally sophisticated pieces which add much to the rare canon of Mozart, Mendelssohn, Brahms and Dvořák.