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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918), Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
String Quartets
Quartetto Italiano
Recorded Vevey, Switzerland August 1965
PHILIPS 464 699-2 (50 Great Recordings series) [56.41]
Crotchet    Amazon UK    Amazon US

New Zealand String Quartet
Recorded Victoria, New Zealand (date not given)
ATOLL ACD 399 [54.22]

It's fascinating and instructive to compare these two performances, one made in 1965 by the Quartetto Italiano, an established great among quartets, the other much more recently (though the exact date is not given) by a relative newcomer, the New Zealand Quartet.

If you are looking for this particular coupling, then you won't go far wrong with either of these recordings. Of course, the competition is fierce (for example, EMI have recently reissued the wonderful Alban Berg Quartet's version of the two works  review), but these are both fine performances beautifully captured. I was hearing the New Zealand Quartet for the first time on disc, and was struck by their clean, forthright sound, and by their secure and flexible ensemble. All four members have strong musical personalities, an essential factor in these works where the spotlight moves so freely around the four instruments.

If I ultimately would go for the Italiano, it's because there is that touch of greater intimacy, a sense of comfort with the music that comes with having lived with it, and with each other, for many years. No complacency here, though; the Italians play the music with the required passion, and all the gorgeous colours of the music are brought out irresistibly. Take for example the scherzo of the Ravel, with its twanging pizzicato; the Italians get just a shade more clarity in the details so that the music seethes with inner energy. The little off-beat accents that abound are all given just enough prominence, and the sharp dynamic changes are as startling as they should be. The slow movement of the Ravel, that amazing moonlit scene, is again well done by the New Zealanders, but the Italians manage to get even further inside the magic of the music. The playing of their viola, Piero Farulli, is very special here.

The Philips recording is a transfer from LP, and it has been accomplished superbly. There are one or two slightly clumsy edits, but of course that's not the fault of the transfer. The recording is quite close up, which makes it, strictly speaking, less 'natural' than the Atoll, which preserves more of an audience perspective. However, in these sensual and sensuous works, that feeling of being inside the quartet and so close to the beautiful sounds these players make was, for me, a real plus.

The Quartetto Italiano, then, bring to these works a subtlety and an idiomatic quality which is seductive and unfailingly stylish. But I did enjoy the freshness and energy of the New Zealand Quartet - they are a group well worth listening to.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

See also review of the NZSQ disc by Simon Foster

In case of difficulty available from Atoll ltd, PO Box 99039, Newmarket, Auckland, New Zealand.  - fax +64 9 529 9207

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