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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
String Quartet Op. 10 (1893) [26:03]
Karol SZYMANOWSKI (1882-1937)
String Quartet No. 1 Op. 37 (1924) [18:47]
String Quartet No. 2 Op. 56 (1927) [18:08]
Quartetto Prometeo (Aldo Campagnari and Giulio Rovighi (violins), Massimo Piva (viola), Francesco Dillon (cello))
rec. 1-3 May 2014, Teatro Communale Filippo Marchetto, Camerino

The Szymanowski quartets are the main news here, but when I put on the disc it launched into the Debussy and I was immediately captivated. This is a reflective and very carefully thought-out performance. The Quartetto Prometeo were new to me but I was impressed by the beautiful tone of their playing, the mutual understanding they show – it is as if they breathe together – and their fine shaping of phrases. The Debussy quartet is perhaps his most classical work – it is certainly the only one with an Opus number – and it really benefits from their patient and careful approach.

Nevertheless, for most people this will be the hors d’oeuvre for the two Szymanowski quartets, which are a good deal less frequently recorded. They are both transitional works, written when the composer was moving from the impressionist manner of the first violin concerto, the third symphony and the opera King Roger to the more astringent idiom of the second violin concerto, the Stabat Mater and the ballet Harnasie. Nevertheless he does frequently hark back to the earlier manner but it sometimes has the effect of a quotation, as if ‘This is how it used to be’.

The first quartet opens with a movement in sonata form, itself a change from his impressionist manner, though the soaring line for the first violin recalls it. However, he later displays a rhythmic drive which shows him moving down a new path. The second movement bears the subtitle ‘in moda d’una canzona’; it begins with the chordal figure which also opened the first movement and moves to a chromatic, rich but distant passage of great beauty. The scherzo begins in a more neo-classical manner with an incisive theme stated successively by the four instruments but in four different keys. Polytonality of this kind is something we associate more with Milhaud or even Holst than with Szymanowski, though Bartók also used it occasionally. He does not continue with fugal writing but the questioning air does persist.

What of the finale? Well, there isn’t one. Szymanowski apparently projected one but didn’t write it and published the quartet with just these three movements. I do find this weakens the piece, attractive though it is.

The second quartet is a more satisfactory whole. It opens with a haunting theme over a pulsating background. This is occasionally interrupted by a call-to-attention which tries to assert more robust themes but the original mood keeps returning. The other two movements show his increasing interest in the folk music of the Tatra mountains, where he came to spend a good deal of time in his later years. The second movement is fierce, full of fire and energy. The finale opens with a slow fugue but the gradually the tempo increases and culminates in a daunting figure which is worried at relentlessly until the music subsides. Energy returns before the end, which is proudly assertive.

These performances are firm and confident but less subtle than their Debussy. Perhaps that has been in their repertoire longer. That said, they are a good deal better than adequate so I can confidently welcome this disc. The Quartetto Prometeo are worth following.

Most people who are looking specifically for the Debussy will want it coupled with the Ravel quartet, and this does not displace old favourites such as the Quartetto Italiano – now sounding a bit long in the tooth - or newer ones such as the Quatuor Ebène, though it can sit beside them. There are more versions of the Szymanowski quartets than there used to be, though I was pleased to find that the 1991 version by the Carmina Quartet on Denon, which was Gramophone chamber music disc of the year in its time, is still around.

The recording is in a good acoustic for chamber music with plenty of bloom on the sound. The disc is nicely produced and does not look like a budget issue. I must, however, say that the original Italian sleeve-note, though informative, has been translated into rather unidiomatic English, and I was a little surprised to read of the composer’s opera King Ruggero.

Stephen Barber



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