Founded in 1990 by Stéphane Topakian, the French Timpani label continues its survey of France's string quartets. What a fascinating series it is proving to be.
Until the foundation of the Société Nationale de Musique (SNM) in 1871 there had been little in the way of a tradition of native French chamber music. The genre tended to be the territory of Austro-German composers especially Beethoven. In what was also an attempt to move away from the domination of music theatre and opera in France at the end of the Franco-Prussian War the SNM, co-founded by Saint-Saëns, Romain Bussine, Alexis de Castillon and their circle, was a forum created to encourage and promote instrumental music of home-grown composers, concentrating on chamber music. As a direct result of the Société Nationale de Musique the number of chamber works composed flourished and created what was in effect a French music renaissance centring on Paris.
The Parisian Benjamin Godard who studied at the Paris Conservatoire was one of a number of young composers to benefit directly from the Société Nationale de Musique and had several works introduced by them. As a violinist/violist and pianist Godard would also play in chamber performances. A co-winner of the Prix de la Ville de Paris for composition in 1878, Godard went on to write a considerable number of scores including eight operas. In 1887 Godard became a professor at the Paris Conservatoire specialising in chamber music. Today Godard is known almost exclusively for his renowned Berceuse an aria taken from his four act opera Jocelyn (1888). The Berceuse appears in a number of arrangements. His orchestral works have been championed by Hyperion (review), Dutton (review) and Naxos (review).
This Timpani release presents Godard’s three string quartets with the first two from 1876/77 written some fifteen years earlier than the third quartet that came near the end of this relatively short life. These are attractive, well crafted works of a generally sunny, often dance-like disposition. At times, mainly in the slow movements, Godard achieves a modest level of emotional depth. Compared to the finest exponents of the genre there is a shortness of memorability to the writing. Overall dynamics and the degree of contrast between and within movements are cautious. As Godard’s personal style is insufficiently individual one can understand why this music remains on the fringes. In the String Quartet No. 1, Op. 33 I especially enjoyed the third movement Andante quasi adagio a moderately affecting elegy incorporating an attractive part for the first violin. I experienced the opening movement of the String Quartet No. 2, Op. 37 as notable for its thickly textured writing that conveys a slight mood of burden and uncertainty. The opening Adagio non troppo of the later String Quartet No. 3, Op. 136 contains especially delightful parts for the first violin and cello who enter into an understated dialogue. There is much to appreciate in the jaunty Menuetto and the mainly excitable and vibrant Finale: Allegro con moto.
Throughout Quatuor Élysée plays with commendable unity and lovely intonation. At times its approach feels slightly tentative and would have benefited from additional directness and vitality. The close sound quality is clear with a cool, steely edge and is well balanced.
Timpani continues its desirable and fascinating series of French string quartets with these fine performances of Benjamin Godard’s attractive scores.