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Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)
Piano Quartet No. 1 in C minor, op. 15 (1879, rev. 1884) [29:55]
Piano Quartet No. 2 in G minor, op. 45 (1887) [32:31]
Antoine Tamestit (viola)
Trio Wanderer
rec. 2008, Teldex Studio, Berlin
Reviewed as 16-bit lossless download from eClassical.com
HARMONIA MUNDI HMC902032 [62:26]

It is my belief that Fauré’s piano quartets are the finest examples of an admittedly underpopulated genre. Doubtless, proponents of the Brahms and Dvorak works will now be shaking their heads at this statement. I also believe that they are among the most under-appreciated works in all of classical music. Any recording of the two quartets is appreciated, but also comes with significant expectations, in terms of my love of the pieces, and also competition from the long-standing “champion” recording, Domus on Hyperion (review).

This is not a new release – it appeared in 2010 – but somehow missed out on a review here. Having recently gained a great appreciation of Trio Wanderer in the French repertoire, it was a “must-listen” when I spotted it whilst trawling through the back catalogue at eClassical.

It is immediately apparent that this is not gentle, elegant Fauré, but a much more intense, almost muscular one. This approach may cause some listeners some initial misgivings, especially if you are used to the elegant Domus style, as I was, but I urge you not to stop reading now. This is a really outstanding recording. Much of the strength in these performances comes from the strings, who are certainly not afraid to dig in. That is not to say Vincent Coq, Trio Wanderer’s pianist, is a shrinking violet, but he sensibly doesn’t feel the need to increase his volume, just the emphasis. It may also be due to the sound balance in the recording, but the strings are certainly given more weight than in the Domus recording, where the piano of Susan Tomes is front and centre.

The First Quartet was written in the aftermath of his broken engagement to the daughter of Pauline Viardot. How could it be anything other than impassioned? The cello theme of the Adagio is clearly an outpouring of Fauré’s anguish, and it is given such a stillness by the players that it causes me to hold my breath. There is something about the pizzicato in the Scherzo that is quite magical. I had never before noticed the similarity between the nervous piano theme that opens that the finale and the start of the Presto finale of Beethoven’s Moonlight sonata. It is only brief but it is certainly there.

The Second Quartet is less immediate in its appeal, rather darker in its atmosphere. The sun doesn’t seem to shine much throughout; it is tense and edgy, especially from the viewpoint of the Wanderers and Tamestit. The opening is taken very strongly, possibly a little too much so, but it does give the respite after a minute greater contrast. The pizzicato strings in the Scherzo are again very striking. The Adagio has great poise as it must, but there is still a depth of expression. Antoine Tamestit’s viola is very prominent in the finale, and has a gloriously burnished tone.

This is such a different interpretation that comparing it against other recordings is problematic. This is certainly an instance where timings are meaningless as there is little difference between this and those of Domus. The Hermitage Trio (Chandos - review), the Kungsbacka Trio (Naxos - review) and the Le Sage group (Alpha - review) are all slower. Let me deal with these latter three first: my colleagues expressed positives about each of them, but none ranked them at the very top. My feeling is that each of them was sufficiently behind the Domus performances, that there seemed little point in listening to them again. There is also a Nimbus release, which I haven’t heard, but Brian Wilson felt that it missed the mark. I never imagined that I would find a recording that would challenge the Domus. If pressed, I would cede the First Quartet to the Wanderers, and the Second to Domus, but I prefer to see them as complementary. In an elegant Parisian mood? Domus. Emotions running more strongly? Wanderer.

There is an unfortunate failure of proofreading on the title page, identifying the second trio as op. 55. The notes are otherwise excellent, featuring an interesting essay entitled “Fauré and the Revival of Chamber Music”. The sound is very clear and immediate, though that does come at the cost of hearing one of the players' noisy breathing.

I will keep to my rule of not awarding a Recording of the Month to a release that is a number of years old, but if any deserves such an accolade, this does.

David Barker