Having listened to and thoroughly enjoyed this release of Benjamin Godard’s three string quartets, here receiving their recording premiere, it’s a pity that Godard's reputation has been somewhat tarnished with the epithet 'superficial'. Many have regarded him merely as a composer of ‘salon’ music, whose standing rests on one composition – the Berceuse from his opera Jocelyn (1888). It’s a piece that has occasionally suffered at the hands of arrangers. Superficial? Nothing could be further from the truth. Although some regard his six operas as the weak link, he also composed four symphonies (review), concertos for piano (review) and violin (review), songs, piano pieces (review) and an array of chamber music including a pair of piano trios (review). Yes, in his short life he was prolific.
He was born in Paris in 1849, and initially took up the violin, boasting the renowned Henri Vieuxtemps amongst his teachers. At the Paris Conservatoire he studied composition with Henri Reber. In 1878 he won the Prix de la Ville de Paris for a secular cantata, Le Tasse. 1887 saw his appointment as teacher of chamber music at the Conservatoire. At the age of only forty-six he succumbed to tuberculosis and died in 1895.
Godard aroused much hostility amongst his peers for his opposition to the ethos of Richard Wagner, and alienated himself from the more ‘progressive’ elements. Listening to his quartets, it’s obvious that modern trends and developments passed him by. He stayed firmly rooted in nineteenth century romanticism. However, there’s proof in these chamber works that his music is the product of a fertile mind, with vast imaginative scope, and an endless gift of melody. There are hints of Robert Schumann, clearly a strong influence.
The composer was twenty-seven when he wrote his String Quartet No. 1, Op 33. In four movements, as are all the quartets, the first movement has a very Schumannesque opening. As it progresses there is some expert polyphonic writing on show with lines intricately delineated. A serious mood, though, pervades. A more light-hearted variation movement follows, based on a gavotte motif and scored with delicate pizzicato. In the sombre adagio, Godard’s gift of melody is very much in evidence. An assertive allegro concludes this ambitious early work.
Although penned only a year later, in the String Quartet No. 2, the composer has certainly upped his game in this more tightly constructed work. The first movement has a pastoral flavour and is affable in character. Noticeable is some competent string writing. An unusual chorale, set for unison strings, opens the second movement. A lyrical melody on the first violin against a pizzicato accompaniment follows. The chorale and melody, elaborated, alternate. A charming two minute scherzo precedes a bustling finale, delivered with verve and vigour.
String Quartet No. 3, Op. 136 dates from 1892 and, by this time, Godard had come a long way in his development as a composer. The work offers more in the way of substance than the previous two opuses. A solo cello ushers in the first movement, which is graced with an abundance of melody, set within some lush, romantic scoring. At the end the music fades away to nothing. The adagio is fervent and suggests a haven of peace and serenity. The cello features prominently, evoking an air of melancholy. Yet by turns, warmth and comfort pervade the music. A short cheery menuetto follows. The finale is energetic and dramatic, and throughout you sense the influence of Schumann in the writing.
Superbly recorded, the Quatuor Élysée give persuasive accounts of these appealing works, securing favourable results. Their incandescent playing and convincing interpretations will certainly win you over. It comes as a surprise to me that these gorgeous, melodic chamber works have languished in obscurity for so long.