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Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)
Piano Quartet no.1 in C minor, op.15 [30:20]
Piano Quartet no.2 in G minor, op.45 [34:08]
The Schubert Ensemble
rec. 1998/9, St. George’s, Brandon Hill, Bristol, UK NIMBUS ALLIANCE NI6296 [64:48]
These two piano quartets by Gabriel Fauré are separated by about nine years, though stylistically they are further apart than that. The first, despite much that is characteristic of the composer, looks backward to the earlier masters of this genre, and to Johannes Brahms in particular. The second is a work of Fauré’s full maturity, - in fact one of the first such.
Both pieces receive magnificent performances from the Schubert Ensemble, the only mystery being where have these recordings been for the past fifteen years? Quite apart from the playing, the standard of the recording is particularly high – this is not the most straightforward of media for the engineers to get the balance right; so easy to get the piano, especially, either too far forward or too remote.
The quartet find exactly the right muscular energy for the opening Allegro molto moderato of Piano Quartet no.1, and the contrasting flowing lyricism of the second subject is equally effective. The scherzo is a delight, almost Mendelssohnian in its feathery lightness, while the beautiful Adagio has great expressive intensity, growing from a sensitively restrained opening. All four players understand fully the need for a wide dynamic range in this music and there are many magical moments as a result. One of the finest is to be found in the great first movement (again Allegro molto moderato) of the Second Piano Quartet, (track 5). At around about 5:10, the strings sustain very softly while piano and violin exchange liquid phrases. This is the sort of passage that must have been a glorious revelation to such young talents as Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy. From there, the ensemble allow the music to sweep along on its impassioned journey with growing confidence.
As Anthony Burton points out in his excellent booklet notes, the two works here have a very similar profile - the tempo headings of the movements are almost identical. It’s almost as if Fauré decided to ‘update’ his writing for the medium, while recognising that Quartet no.1 has its great merits. The later work has such a greater emotional range, more fully typical use of Fauré’s musical language and a daring exploration of the potential of the instrumental combination. All of that is faithfully captured in this excellent issue.