Jean CARTAN (1906-1932)
String Quartet no.1 in D minor (1927) [18:10]
Introduction and Allegro, for wind quintet and piano* (1926-27/1930) [8:16]
Sonatine, for flute and clarinet (1930) [9:13]
String Quartet no.2 in A (1930-31) [25:00]
Ensemble Stanislas* (Olivier Sauvage (flute); Pierre Colombain (oboe); Philippe Moinet (clarinet); Nicolas Tacchi (bassoon); Pierre Riffault (horn); Catherine Chaufard (piano)); Quatuor Stanislas (Laurent Causse and Bertrand Menut (violins); Marie Triplet (viola); Jean de Spengler (cello))
rec. Salle Poirel, Nancy, France, June 2010 and February 2011. DDD
TIMPANI 1C1187 [60:53] 

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 intrusive.
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What a loss to music Cartan's untimely death was.