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César FRANCK (1822-1890)
String Quartet in D major, (1889-90) [46:44]
Ernest CHAUSSON (1855-1899)
String Quartet in A major, Op. 35 (1898-99) completed by Vincent d'Indy [30:15]
Spiegel String Quartet (Elisa Kawaguti (violin); Stefan Willems (violin); Leo De Neve (viola); Jan Sciffer (cello))
rec. 5-7 July 2005, Fürstliche Reitbahn, Bad Arolsen, Germany. DDD  
MUSIKPRODUKTION DABRINGHAUS UND GRIMM 644 1391-2 [77:09]
 

The independent German label Musikproduktion Dabringhaus and Grimm (MDG) complement their disc of Franck’s Piano Quintet in F minor and Chausson’s Piano Quartet in A major on MDG 344 1351-2 with a release presenting the String Quartets of the same two composers in splendid interpretations by the Spiegel String Quartet.
 
The Spiegel Quartet was formed in Antwerp in 1996 by members of the Ysaÿe Quartet. Until then the musicians had been leaders or principals with some of Belgium’s foremost orchestras. Today the players under the leadership of Elisa Kawaguti, devote themselves exclusively to chamber music and teaching. The Spiegels play an highly impressive collection of instruments: the first violin. Elisa Kawaguti. an Atelier Stradivarius (1740); second violin, Stefan Willems, a T. Boussu, Brussels (1750); violist, Leo De Neve, a D. Teckler (1693) and cellist, Jan Sciffer, a Marcus Snoeck, Brussels (1726).
 
The Liège-born César Franck was late to develop his mature style writing all his masterpieces when he was well into his forties. Although Franck began to compose chamber music quite late in his career his creative output was immense once he started, and went on to write impassioned works that are some of the most famous in all late-19th Century chamber music. Foremost among them are the wonderful Piano Quintet in F minor (1879) and the Violin Sonata in A major (1886).
 
The D major String Quartet was one of Franck’s final works and it seemed to demand of him a great deal of effort. He worked at it from 1889 to 1890 and before that he had prepared by studying the string quartets of Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms. At its première in Paris at a concert of the Société Nationale de Musique, in April 1890, the String Quartet was received so enthusiastically by the audience that a second performance was arranged for the following month. The richly structured work would prove to be one of the few successful premières in Franck’s career.
 
Franck constructs the D major score around cyclical material which recurs modified or transformed throughout the different movements. The extended first movement Poco lento-allegro has been described as a Lied, since it is basically a fully extended song. In the hands of the Spiegel the opening movement feels like Franck is yearning for a perpetual childhood. Mendelssohnian in spirit, the scherzo is diaphanous in nature, and is performed with charm and lightness of touch. The third movement, the real heart of the score, is a larghetto which contains some of the most magisterial pages ever written by Franck. The players confidently convey the exalted nature and the intense feeling of the movement. The final movement marked allegro molto is a major apotheosis to the score in which all the previous themes are recapitulated. The work ends with a magical final reminder of the noble song of the larghetto. I love the way the Spiegels communicate the appropriate blend of virility and charm with nobility and passion.
 
Ernest Chausson died on 10 June 1899 when his bicycle crashed into a wall. Inevitably, given his disposition, various commentators have wondered whether this was suicide, but it is hard to believe that such a deeply moral man would have chosen to kill himself while riding behind one of his daughters and on the way to meet the rest of his family at the railway station.
 
Among the various projects Chausson left behind were some for a second opera, some orchestral overtures, a violin sonata, a second symphony and this String Quartet in C minor. Chausson had finished the first two movements of the C minor score and was nearly at the end of the third when the fatal accident happened. Vincent D'Indy completed the third movement and in this form the work was given its first performance at the Société Nationale in January 1900.
 
The first movement marked Grave - Modéré was completed in 1898 and given a private performance to great success. Here Chausson quotes the opening phrase of Debussy’s String Quartet. The score, though in no way derivative, mirrors the gravity of Franck's music and contains remarkable Franckian textures such as the use of sequences and deliberate pauses. The Spiegel perform the movement with an impressive fluency and coherence. Four months later, in the spring of 1899, the serene second movement Très calme was completed. Here Chausson seems to quote the ‘Tarnhelm’ motif from Wagner’s Das Rheingold. With consummate understanding the Belgium players in the slow movement convey a rich vein of tenderness and humanity. The concluding movement Gaiement, pas trop vite is the most interesting of all the three movements. Here the link with Beethoven’s String Quartet, Op. 127 becomes evident as both composers utilise a striking dotted rhythm and mix the sonata form and the scherzo in a similar way. Impressively and with extraordinary adroitness in the closing movement the Spiegels neatly fashion an interpretation of colourful expression. D'Indy was given the simple task of completing the final bars and editing the rough manuscript that Chausson left. Though undoubtedly one of Chausson’s most beautiful works the C minor score never quite captured public imagination and is now seldom performed.
 
The sonics from the Dabringhaus and Grimm engineers are acceptable but I would have preferred more detail as opposed to the slightly cloudy sound picture. I wonder if this is an attempt by the sound engineers to provide an atmosphere of French Impressionnisme. The helpful liner notes are well written but not flawless.   
 
I don’t currently have an alternative recording of the Franck Quartet but a quick Google search revealed accounts from: the Fitzwilliam Quartet on Decca Australian Eloquence 4768463; the Joachim Quartet on Calliope CAL 9889; the Bartholdy Quartet on Christophorus CHE00372 and the Kocian Quartet on Praga PR250141. My choice for a recommended version of the Chausson Quartet is an easier task. I would not look outside the account from the Quatuor Ludwig on Naxos 8.553645, c/w Franck Piano Quintet. Recorded in 1996, at the Alençon Auditorium in France, the Ludwigs perform the score with spontaneity and a great assurance.
 
I cannot imagine too many people being disappointed with these splendid interpretations by the Spiegel of both the Franck and the Chausson quartets.
 
Michael Cookson
 

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