Although Irish, we think of Stanford as a quintessential English composer, so to discover his close friendship with Brahms and hence the great violinist Joseph Joachim, is a little surprising. We know Stanford best by his fine music for the Anglican Church, less so by his orchestral music, and even less by his chamber music; evidenced in these two fine string quartets, beautifully played by the Dante Quartet. Both works are robustly Germanic and finely written; the surprise is that they are not better known.
The Fifth Quartet opens confidently, full of good ideas and beautifully essayed, the musicians clearly loving every bar. Even though the other movements do not approach the first’s height of excellence, they provide perfect balance; the easy swing of the second movement offering a break from the terseness of the third. In the coda to the final movement Stanford includes a melody from Joachim’s Romance. That same Romance is included on the disc in tribute to their great friendship. Joachim was responsible for Brahms getting his First Symphony performed in England in 1877. In turn, Brahms arranged for Stanford’s music to be performed in Berlin in 1889.
The Eighth Quartet from 1919 opens in nervous mood, alternately edgy and lyrical. The skittish final movement provides balance to the sombre slow movement, with a plaintive theme adding depth to the music. The work ends quietly, almost with a sigh.