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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
String Quartet (1904) [27:13]
Germaine TAILLEFERRE (1892-1983)
String Quartet (1917-1919) [9:34]
Darius MILHAUD (1892-1974)
String Quartet No. 4 (1918) [13:30]
Leipzig String Quartet: Andreas Seidel, violin; Tilman Büning, violin; Ivo Bauer, viola; Matthias Moosdorf, cello.
rec. Paul-Gerhardt-Kirche, 8-10 February 2005. DDD


I was absolutely delighted to receive this CD.  I have never heard the String Quartet by Germaine Tailleferre – and it turned out to be somewhat of an eye-opener. I imagined that I would like the work and I was totally correct in this assumption. Much of my review will concentrate on this piece.

The programme notes spell out the benefit of studying the three works on this disc side by side. Ravel of course is the progenitor of the other two pieces – not so much in the sense of Tailleferre and Milhaud indulging in pastiche or cribbing but in using the style and ethos of the older master’s music as a springboard for their own works. It is often noted that Ravel did not develop a school of sycophantic musicians copying or even developing his style. Yet the quartets by Milhaud and Tailleferre go some way to acknowledging the importance of Ravel’s own essay in this form.

I will not say much about the Ravel Quartet as this work is well served by musical criticism as well as by recordings. There are some 43 versions available on the Arkiv database.

However, the fortunes of the Milhaud String Quartet No.4 have been the very opposite of Ravel’s. Apart from this present CD there is only one other version available. This is on Troubadisc 1410. I had not listened to this work before receiving the review copy – and I am impressed (It’s also included in the Naïve set of the complete quartets - see Review - Ed.).

The work was composed in 1918 whilst Milhaud was an attaché at the French Embassy in Brazil. He had been taken by Paul Claudel as a member of his staff to assist in ‘propaganda’. Milhaud made great use of his time in Rio de Janeiro absorbing much from Latin-American culture in general, and developing an admiration for jazz and popular music in particular.

The first movement of the String Quartet opens with little ado. There is a hint of a folk-song here which has been described as ‘seen through Picasso’s eyes’. It is not developed or manipulated to any degree and is very short and to the point lasting only just over two minutes. Towards the end of this Vif the music becomes both slower and quieter: the mood-change has been engineered to prepare the listener for the long and lugubrious Funèbre. This second movement is obviously the core of the work and lasts nearly twice as long as the two outer movements put together. It is composed of various rhythmic and melodic fragments that seem to be combined and then deconstructed. In fact, it is only a funeral march for some its duration. I cannot really agree with the programme notes that the fugato section ‘(evokes) the sphere of the sublime and of sacred music through the old style’. This seems a little bit pretentious! Yet this is an intense piece of writing that explores a considerable depth of emotion; it is also extremely beautiful. There is some fine string writing that tests the considerable technique of the players.

The Finale - Très Animé - breaks away from the deep sadness of the slow movement. It is all over in a trice really. This is a rhythmic ‘last’ movement that possibly hints at a Latin American vernacular yet there are no direct references or quotations. The work ends positively with all trace of sadness banished.

Germaine Tailleferre was quite young when she penned her String Quartet. Although the sleeve-notes do not actually give a date it was around the end of the First World War. At this time Tailleferre was in the same artistic set as Pablo Picasso and Modigliani. And it was these connections that led to early successes. She was introduced to the Paris musical establishment in a concert given in the studio of one of her painter friends. Her Sonatine for String Quartet along with her Jeux de Pleine Aire was well received along with works by Louis Durey and Francis Poulenc. After the concert the Sonatine was revised into the present String Quartet – with the addition of a third movement.

There are some similarities and also dissimilarities from the elder composer’s essay. For a start, Tailleferre’s Quartet is one movement shy of Ravel’s and is a full 10 minutes shorter! However the opening Modéré is certainly reminiscent of the model. Much of the playing could be described as ‘trés flessible’ even if this is not in the score. There is certainly an intimate feel about this music that epitomises chamber music at its best. There are some mild dissonances in this first movement that certainly add spice and interest to a well wrought piece.

The ‘Intermède’ is quite a mysterious movement rather than dark or depressing. Perhaps enigmatic is the best description? Yet there seems to be some cross referencing to the Modéré in these pages.

The last movement is by far the longest – being nearly as long as the previous two together. This music is actually quite aggressive and even dissonant in places. There are some quasi-motor rhythms used although they do not last for long before being cast aside. These are interspersed with some moments of repose. A chorale type phrase emerges before the work comes to a successful and quite memorable conclusion.

There is considerable variety in this Quartet – one could even argue for stylistic disparity between the parts. Yet somehow the work does have a unity. Perhaps it is the internal self referencing? And one final comment - any comparison with Ravel must bear in mind that the world had moved on since 1904 – the First World War was still raging across Europe when Germaine Tailleferre penned this composition.

Is this a great work? I do not know but it is certainly well written, intellectually satisfying and quite moving which suggests that this could well be the case.

The playing of all three works by the Leipzig String Quartet cannot be faulted in any way. They have a fine reputation for playing 20th century works including John Cage and Roman Haubenstock-Ramati.  But they also play Beethoven, Schubert and other classics. They currently have some 270 works in their repertoire and some sixty CD releases.

I certainly enjoyed their rendition of the Ravel. Its phrasing, balance and poise appealed to my views as to how this work should be played. It is one of the ensemble’s boasts that a considerable amount of historical study goes into the preparation of each performance and recording. This is evident from the sophistication of their playing.

For anyone wishing a version of the Ravel Quartet alone this is an ideal CD. Furthermore it is good that the coupling is not Debussy but rather two lesser-known works that certainly deserve our attention.

Only two negative points about this CD: firstly MDG could have done better than 50 minutes 42 seconds. There was certainly room for another quartet! Secondly the programme notes are not over-informative. They tend to be opinion rather than fact. I noted above that the dates of Tailleferre’s work are not given.

This apart I would heartily recommend this disc to all listeners: a good programme with excellent performances.

John France


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