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Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)
Piano Quintet No.1 in D minor, Op.89 (1887-1906) [30:59]
Piano Quintet No.2 in C minor, Op.115 (1919-1921) [32:17]
Fine Arts Quartet (Ralph Evans, Efim Boico (violins), Yuri Gandelsman (viola), Wolfgang Laufer (cello)); Cristina Ortiz (piano)
rec. December 2007, Purchase College, New York, USA
NAXOS 8.570938 [63:24]
Experience Classicsonline


Fauré's Piano Quintets are very different from his more popular Piano Quartets, which were written much earlier and storm the heights and depths of High Romanticism. The Quintets are sublime, but elusive. They are warm and comfy, like climbing with your feet into an armchair in front of a fireplace. The emotions are reticent, all is calm, you sense the soft smile of a wise old man. Sometimes it is a sad smile, a sorrow, a regret.

Unusually the piano part sings with the string parts. This is no concerto for piano and reduced orchestra. Here, the performers work together to create a perfect, seamless blend. Sometimes the piano part is purposefully sparse, economical - its utterances calculated with precise craft. All this results in an hour of ethereal sonorities, which will deliver great pleasure once you stop looking for contrast between movements.

The two Quintets have gentle autumnal qualities that may remind of the late clarinet chamber pieces of Brahms. The opening movement of the First Quintet is somewhat Brahmsian, yet it radiates a singing beauty that only the French knew how to produce. The long Adagio that follows is more subdued and melancholic, yet its climaxes are highly emotional, and its quiet moments are magical. The last movement, a scherzo and finale in one, starts with a distant echo of Eroica variations, with subsequent episodes that are by turns ecstatic, stormy and sunny. Finally, the swirling coda swirls all the notes into one bold D-major.

Although the Quintet No.2 was written when Fauré was 75, it shows no decrease in vigor, sharp wit, or inspiration. The first movement is unmistakable Fauré. It is so similar emotionally to the first movement of the first Quintet that it is hard to believe that fifteen years have passed, a war has swept through France, and Les Six have started their collaboration. The formal structure is complex, but in the master's hands this complexity is transparent: the metamorphoses of music seem to obey the hidden laws of nature. The Scherzo second movement looks even further back, to the Piano Quartets of forty years before. After all, Fauré was the father of the "French scherzo", employed by Debussy and Ravel in their chamber pieces. Now the music is drier, and for a long time there is a sense of expectation for a big romantic resolution which does not arrive until the very last measures. This is suspense without climax - an enthralling effect, like watching a swift, turbulent stream.

The slow movement is a vast, quasi-static tableau. It has a feeling of timelessness, reminiscent of Beethoven's Song of Thanksgiving from Op.132. When it is over, and the finale starts, it is like emerging from a hypnotic trance. And what a gloomy wakening it is. The more cheerful moments are like nostalgic memories, or viewing the emotions of youth from the vantage point of old age. The cold, bumpy rolling of the piano part underlines the fatalism. The sun often breaks through the clouds and the coda brings bright sunlight. Thus the Quintet ends on an optimistic note, though that's not what remains in mind: the wind and rain remain. This belongs amongst the most memorable music you can find in the chamber realm.

When I took this disc for review I was interested whether someone could trounce my old favorite - Domus on Hyperion (CDA66766, rec.1994). And the answer is - yes and no. 'No' - in tone, but probably 'yes' in intensity, especially in the Second Quintet. The Hyperion recording has a certain clear-water sound that is not easily explained. Imagine drinking from the most fresh forest source: you can drink, and drink, and still want more, and not get tired. I don't know how the Domus (plus Anthony Marwood on 2nd violin) achieved this, but that's the feeling I have. On the Naxos disc, the piano of Christina Ortiz has similar transparent delicacy, but the string instruments have more ordinary sound, which, listening for an hour, can tend to tire the listener.

On the other hand, this is just a matter of tone, a personal preference. Objectively I cannot pinpoint a weak spot in this Naxos incarnation. The quintets are played with great devotion, showing fine balance and rich in delicate nuance. The ensemble is perfect, which is as expected from such an experienced group as the Fine Arts. The differences from Domus/Marwood are more noticeable in the Second Quintet, where I prefer the choices made by the Fine Arts and Ortiz. The recording quality is first class, both clean and atmospheric.

Another fine disc from Naxos.

Oleg Ledeniov

see also reviews by Ian Lace and Kevin Sutton

 


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