French composer Jean Cartan died of complications from tuberculosis
aged only 25. His father was the illustrious mathematician Elie
Cartan, whose name is attached to the Einstein-Cartan Theory
of Gravity, a 1922 modification of General Relativity Theory.
Jean's elder brother Henri was also a mathematician who made
important contributions to the field of algebra. Jean's misfortunes
of health are starkly underlined by the fact that Henri died
as recently as 2008 at the age of 104!
In his short lifetime Jean was able to compose about a dozen
works, and this CD from French label Timpani contains the entirety
of his chamber works. In the broadest terms, Cartan's music
can be described as a neo-Classical product of its times, but
that does not even begin to do credit to its brilliance, imagination,
magnetism and pathos.
The four-movement First String Quartet immediately announces
a precocious talent, reminiscent in places, most notably in
the outer movements, of Janáček, whose two influential
Quartets had appeared three or four years previously. So short
was Cartan's life that his Second Quartet, finished only four
years later, can be said to belong, in a real sense, to his
maturity, such is the advancement in language. Now in three
movements, and decidedly more like Shostakovich in character
- at one point Cartan even seems to quote the 'DSCH' motif -
there is considerable tonal ambiguity, structural complexity,
chromaticism and great invention. Yet still the lines cohere
aesthetically to produce a quite outstanding chamber work that
belongs in every quartet's repertory and is worth the asking
price of this disc on its own - kudos to Timpani and Stanislas
for recording both of these stunning Quartets. And what a loss
to music Cartan's untimely death was.
The Introduction and Allegro for wind quintet and piano is an
upbeat, sunny, almost arcadian work that naturally calls to
mind Saint-Saëns, Poulenc or Roussel. The piano is seamlessly
blended with the winds, never being allowed to dominate, and
the results are delightful. The Sonatina for flute and clarinet
dates from the same time as the revision of the Introduction
and Allegro, but is more inward-looking and intimate. Poulenc
again is the obvious model, but the booklet notes rightly point
up Stravinsky's influence, and Cartan sometimes sounds on the
verge of quoting from The Firebird or Petrouchka, only to change
his mind at the last moment.
The Stanislas Ensemble/Quartet have made numerous recordings
in their 25-odd years, most notably the series devoted to the
chamber music of Cartan's much older contemporary Joseph-Guy
Ropartz - the third of three volumes of his string quartets
was approvingly received here
and the subsequent CD of trios here.
Their performance in the Cartan Quartets in particular are impressive,
even if their understanding of Cartan's très lent
instruction for the third movement of the First Quartet is très
louche. The wind players and pianist have less to do, but
their contribution is also well presented.
The CD comes in an attractively designed digipak-type case,
with two caveats: the slot the booklet goes in is not made to
last, and the choice of gold-grey for the secondary font on
a deep red background is frankly harebrained, rendering some
of the information all but illegible. There are interesting,
detailed notes by Jacques Tchamkerten, but the English translation,
signed 'Jeremy Drake', not only makes uncommon use of the comma,
but is couched suspiciously unidiomatically in places: would
any native English-speaker really write "It is difficult to
perceive a veritable introduction", "before dying in deportation
for resistance activities" or "developing a creative activity"?
Sound quality is very good, clear and well-balanced. Breathing,
reed and valve noises are sometimes noticeable, but not too
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