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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
String Quartet in G minor Op. 10 (1893) [26:10]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)

String Quartet in F major (1902-03) [29:46]
Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)
String Quartet Op.121 (1923-24) [24:24]
Quatuor Ebène
rec. Ferme de Villefavard en Limousin, February 2008 
VIRGIN CLASSICS 5190452 [80:27]
Experience Classicsonline


This quartet has been getting some golden reviews of late and I’ve read some highly flattering critiques of their latest disc, this all-French programme, which made me keen to hear it.
 

The Quatuor Ebène certainly makes a lovely sound, very Gallic. Their corporate sonority is essentially light, with delicate bowing and athletic rhythmic playing being powerful components of their strengths. They tend to take relatively slow tempo – not necessarily egregiously so in the context of contemporary performances - but certainly so in the context of the lineage of French quartets in these three works. There’s nothing brittle, or biting or over vibrated about this playing – it’s homogenous tonally and timbrally, has been thought out with great sensitivity and care, and strikes the ear as frequently of the highest quality. 

Yes I know – you can sense a ‘but’. Before we get to the ‘buts’ though, a word about the performances. The most outstanding thing about the recital is that the old army issue Debussy-Ravel line-up has been augmented by Fauré’s elusive 1924 masterpiece – the work he never lived to hear premiered. This receives a beautifully subtle and mellifluous reading; it’s deft, wristy, misty, beautifully judged as to apposite bow weight and languorous. And here’s the ‘but’. It’s also too lateral and the tempi are too slow. Turn to the classic Krettly Quartet 78 set of 1928 and you hear how much more assertive, how much more interventionist Fauré readings were at the time - and how they’ve become if not insipid at least too gauze-like for their own good. They compound the ‘late Fauré’ problem this way. The corporate refinement of the Ebène is certainly thrilling but it misses the athletic paragraphal sense of older quartets where things are, to the benefit of the music, more externalised. This is certainly the case with the slow movement. The finale’s pizzicati ring out defiantly with the Krettly; with the Ebène they’re more subsumed into the sub-stratum of the sonority. The rise and fall of the melodic line is more sharply engraved by the older group; I happen to feel that if you were coming afresh to this work you’d feel it, not for the first time, beautiful but essentially pastel shaded and wishy washy. Turn to the Krettly for a totally different experience. 

For the other two works I turned to the old Bouillon Quartet in their wartime readings – not an obvious choice I admit, which is why I did it. They did have some zippy ideas as to tempo. Still the Ebène’s Debussy stands up to scrutiny for much of the time. I happen to prefer a more fantastical approach such as the Bouillon provide or the Galimir or the London in a live Library of Congress performance (not commercially available). Older groups tended to take the second movement much more quickly than nowadays – the Galimir took 3:45, the London much the same, the Capet 3:38, the Bouillon 3:36. The Ebène take 4:01 and it matters. Still a lovely sounding performance that remains – I need to add, for me – a bit static and under-projected. 

Same with the Ravel, really. I appreciate that performances of this quartet are getting slower and slower. Some group somewhere will soon take ten minutes over the first movement. The Ebène take 8:50. The Bouillon is amazingly quick at 6:44. It’s very difficult to make things cohere at a slower tempo; the Ravel ‘supervised’ International Quartet 78 performance supposedly enshrines his thoughts on the matter and that’s taken at a relatively fast lick. But it’s true that there’s plenty of suave phrasing throughout in the Ebène reading and the familiar individual and corporate strengths are again strongly evident. 

So I did, despite appearances to the contrary, find these performances engaging. Perhaps the nature of my disagreement with them indicates their ultimate strength. One could hardly deny the beauty of sound, the sympathetic recording quality or the dedication shown by these four young musicians. 

Jonathan Woolf 

 


 


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