Founded in 1945, the performances on this disc are
by the Quartetto Italiano’s second line-up: in 1947, the violist Lionello
Forzenti was replaced by the present violist, Pierro Farulli, whose
place was, in turn, taken in 1978 by Dino Asciolla. It is difficult
to know which is the greater attraction for the record buyer: the second
recorded performance of the Debussy by this ensemble (together with
its original mouthwatering coupling on Columbia, Darius Milhaud’s twelfth
quartet, there receiving its first recording); or their first recording
of the Ravel (also for Columbia, and in stereo: they were to rerecord
it in 1965); or indeed, there are probably collectors who will buy this
disc for the Milhaud. I do hope so.
The Debussy and Ravel quartets are hardly under-served
on record. The most recent and obvious competition from this self-same
record company is the Debussy/Ravel/Stravinsky disc by the Alban Berg
Quartet in EMI’s Great Recordings of the Century series (CDM5 67550-2,
enthusiastically and informedly reviewed
for Music on the Web by Simon Foster). The Alban Berg’s recordings
date from nearly thirty years later than the Italiano’s. Their similarly
intrepid fill-ups (Stravinskian, this time) and excellent Debussy and
Ravel mean that they would provide the ideal modern complement to the
Quartetto Italiano’s 1950s accounts. I for one would certainly suggest
investing in both.
Neither groups are of French origin, but neither show
any discomfort whatsoever in these waters. The Quartetto Italiano’s
Debussy is entirely successful. The infectious pizzicati of the
second movement are truly guitar-like and the finale generates its tension
from the performance’s rhythmic excellence. The players enter into Ravel’s
rarefied sound-world as if to the manner born (the second movement is
riveting). In both pieces, their fluid sense of rhythm consistently
gives the music the time it requires to breathe. They exhibit a unanimity
of thought which makes for a compelling listening experience.
Milhaud’s Twelfth Quartet was written in 1945 for Fauré’s
centenary. Milhaud’s quartets are usually only known because two of
them, Nos. 14 and 15, can be played simultaneously as an Octet. It is
to be hoped that this reissue might encourage further exploration. To
hear the Twelfth played, as here, with such advocacy is cheering indeed.
The first movement comes across as sunny, tuneful and delightful; the
second movement is whispered and intimate; the third (marked ‘avec entrain’,
‘With spirit’) is characterised by vivacious, foot-tapping rhythms and
a sense of invention that threatens to spill over. If you want a comparative
version which at the same time will introduce you to two further quartets
from Milhaud’s canon, try the Parisii String Quartet on Auvidis V4781
(coupled with Nos. 3 and 9).
Whatever the reason you decide to buy this disc, you
will not be disappointed.