CHARLES STANFORD – String Quartet No. 2

Irish Late Romantic composer Sir Charles Villiers Stanford [1852–1924] wrote eight string quartets. My review CD contains String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2. I don’t have the dates of composition but the two are in very contrasting styles. The First is in a Classical style while the Second is definitely of a Romantic nature. I intend to discuss the Second Quartet.

This work opens in a slow fugue–like manner. The first violin introduces a lamenting melody and the second violin soon comes in behind it. Some strong chords present a stately mood; the cello has a say in this. A change in feeling and tempo follows. The tempo, marked moderato, is now in full swing and the violins produce optimistic melodies; sometimes pizzicato is heard. The melodies move into a descending duet for the two violins, making for a more rhythmic phase with the cello harmonising the violins. A slight folk-like section ensues, possibly Gypsy-like, as the violins roam freely in their melodic statements. A solo violin passage slowly brings in the second violin and the ensemble follows. I know the composer is Irish but the music reminds me of early American string quartets. The solo violin keeps returning and eventually leads the ensemble into an endearing passage. The first violin is persistent and, together with the second, move into a period of reflection. A sparse moment concludes.

The second movement is short, and races from the beginning. The violins are extremely busy with cascading flourishes of notes. The mood becomes slightly tempered and the violins again produce some charming melodies. Now the previous feeling returns, and the distinctive melodic flourish is heard again. The end is three sharp notes and a final chord.

The next movement, marked andante, again takes me to America. Perhaps there was a little Irish in early American quartets. This is pastoral music, for me, evoking hills and valleys. A change brings a degree of tension as the violins become very animated, agitated even. Some loud chords are heard, and then the opening feeling is revisited. The pastoral feeling returns but this time, with more of an edge to it. This is a most alluring passage. Now some mild tension is heard, with spiking violins; this doesn’t last and a winsome feeling unfolds as the violins spin out complementary melodic lines. The end lets you down easy, with a fade on some gentle chords.

The finale, an allegro, has some jaunty violins with a gentle meter and a folk-like rhythm. It slowly gains impetus and a flurry of melodic activity is very sprightly. The violins express with some long phrases and a brief change to a minor tonality gives the music a different sound. The major key soon returns and strong violin lines proceed for some time. Another characteristic descending flourish occurs and the violins then settle into an accelerated passage. There is intensity here and the violins move into a strongly rhythmic section. Nearing the end, a feeling of measured melancholia comes over the piece. This is soon dispensed with and a frantic passage concludes the work.

The review CD, performed by the Vanbrugh Quartet, is available on Amazon US – considerably cheaper – and Amazon UK. It also contains a Fantasy for Horn and String Quartet, which is very emotional; there is some fine string quartet writing here.

To my great surprise neither of these two string quartets are on Spotify nor YouTube. A CD on the Somm label by the Dante Quartet containing Quartets Nos. 5 and 8 is available on Spotify, YouTube and earsense.

Listenability: An entertaining Romantic work.


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