Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Premier Quatuor, Op. 10 (1893) [26:51]  
Deux Danses (1904)* [10:44]
Premier Trio (1880)† [21:59]
Reverie (c. 1890) [5:52]
Chris Laurence (double-bass), Sioned Williams (harp)* ; Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano)†; Brodsky Quartet
rec. 18-19 October and 1 November (Premier Trio) 2011, Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk.
CHANDOS CHAN 10717 [65:29]
The Brodsky Quartet makes its intentions clear from the first bars of Debussy’s Opus 10 String Quartet: this is by no means going to be an atmospheric echo of impressionism, but an interpretation in which every single stress and emotive extreme is going to be exploited and laid bare. The Brodsky players do plenty in terms of colour, carefully defining sonorities and throwing up contrasts of dynamic not only through weight of bowing, but also through changes of timbre and layering of textures. This gives the music an added sense of detail, as well as highlighting expressive points.
There are numerous excellent recordings of Debussy’s String Quartet around, and while still a very noble account, even that with the Alban Berg quartet on EMI (see review) now sounds a bit smooth and slick by comparison after some time with this new Chandos recording. Another old favourite recording of the String Quartet is that with the Chilingirian Quartet, which can be had as a bargain from EMI Classics for Pleasure. The ensemble is superbly well integrated, and plays with the most natural sense of phrasing you’ll hear anywhere. Comparing this with the Brodsky Quartet makes the Chilingirian Quartet sound almost generalised in terms of sound. This closely observed and intensely prepared approach might have ended up sounding picky and analytical, but the urgency and drama in the first two movements is compelling, and the feel of warm expression in the third movement, including some portamento slides, is irresistible. The bluesy parallel progressions which open the fourth movement are also done with some cheeky but understated note-bending which I confess to finding marvellous - it’s certainly a different and more daring approach than from the Chilingirian players. Needle sharp rhythmic observation and tonal nuance again characterises the more vif sections later on in the movement. This is a recording which will still have plenty to offer even in ten years from now, and fans of the work should sally forth and acquire forthwith.
Originally for harp and string orchestra, the Deux Danses is a work which pops up now and again in programmes with harp concertos. Written for a now obsolete design by Pleyel for a fully chromatic harp, the work is playable on the pedal harp which is now the instrument of choice, but with a cathedral organist’s deftness of foot required in some sections. The arrangement for string quartet with added double bass works very well, and the Brodsky Quartet prove sensitive accompanists, warming their tone to match the rounded sonorities of the harp. This is a performance of grace and charm which can certainly beat many an orchestral recording for transparency and expressive communicability.
The second of the two main works on this disc is the Piano Trio, written when the composer was but a lad of eighteen. Recommended by his piano teacher to Tchaikovsky’s patroness Nadejda von Meck, Debussy travelled with her and her children in 1880, giving lessons and sight-reading piano parts at chamber music evenings. Debussy’s own work for this setting is a romantic charmer, full of lovely tunes and imitative exchanges between the instruments, and the performers here communicate all these aspects of the music perfectly. The balance between piano and strings is ideal, with no one instrument too prominent, and if anything Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s piano on the less advantageous side. There is no attempt to seek angst and drama where none was intended, and while the music goes further than being mere salon entertainment there is a lightness of touch in this performance and recording which seems to take us back in time. For this Trio the top alternative choice has to be the beautifully made Hyperion recording made by the Florestan Trio on CDA 67114, and I would be hard pressed to make a decision one way or the other as to which I would prefer on a desert island. The Hyperion recording has a warmer piano tone, but the strings are the richer and more vibrantly eloquent with Chandos. In the end it will be the couplings which will be the decider, with the Hyperion disc having further trios by Fauré and Ravel.
This programme ends with the piano solo Rêverie in an arrangement for string quartet. This was one of several piano pieces written by Debussy to earn some money in the salon market, and while it is worlds away from the String Quartet it goes well after the gentler moods of the Piano Trio. Even with its commercial clientele in mind it is still easy to hear Debussy’s inclination towards sophisticated harmonic progressions and a feel for elusive and exotic atmosphere. The string version emphasises this more than the piano original, and to my ears more than the orchestral arrangements I’ve heard, which emphasise the more dreamy side of the work through added textures and the throwing of the melodies between soloists.
To sum up, this is a superb Debussy disc to have. The String Quartet performance is the main attraction, and is superlatively performed and recorded. None of the additional works is negligible, and all are given eminently rewarding performances.
Dominy Clements
Superlative String Quartet - excellent programme.