Thomas ADÈS (b. 1971)
Arcadiana (1994) [20:28]
Henri DUTILLEUX (1916-2013)
Ainsi la nuit (1973/76) [18:02]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
String Quartet in F major (1902/03) [28.18]
Quatuor Varèse
rec. 2015 La Ferme de Villefavard en Limousin, France
NoMadMusic is currently releasing some fascinating mainly French repertoire and this new album is one of the finest I’ve heard from the label. For its debut release Quatuor Varèse has recorded three twentieth-century works, two from French composers Ravel and Dutilleux, and a work from Londoner Thomas Adès.

Describe here in the notes as ‘The Key to Arcadia’ Adès wrote the seven movement Arcadiana in 1994 in response to a commission from the Endellion Quartet. It was introduced the next year at the Elgar Festival in Cambridge. Arcadiana consists of seven distinct “sound pictures” with six that “evoke various vanished or vanishing idylls.” The idyll described is the Arcadia from Greek poetry, a paradise where inhabitants are virtuous and at peace with nature. Striking is the playing of first title Venezia Notturno where the nocturnal feel of Venice is palpable with hints of the waltz. Arresting is the second title Das klinget so herrlich, das klinget so schon of a restless quality, pervaded with piercing harmonics. The fourth title Et… (tango mortale), centre point in the series makes a powerful impression, heavily agitated with a detectable tango rhythm.

Henri Dutilleux is given the heading ‘Key to the Night’ in the notes and is represented by his poetically radiant Ainsi la nuit (Thus the Night). Completed in 1976 the work was premiered the next year by Quatuor Parrenin at Théâtre de l'Est parisien. Comprising of seven brief sections for Ainsi la nuit Dutilleux took inspiration from Webern’s Bagatelles and is is dark, pellucid night music. Whilst Adès’s Arcadiana has an instant appeal Ainsi la nuit probably requires repeated hearing to appreciate its qualities. Notable is the playing of the opening section Nocturne rather soporific in mood that increases in anxiety containing some passages of stark beauty. Section 2 Miroir d'espace has a sultry rather breathless sound world and striking too is section 5 Constellations that flashes past at tremendous speed.

Ravel’s early String Quartet in F major is described in the notes as ‘The key to Paradise’. A staple of the chamber music repertoire Ravel was still a student of Gabriel Fauré at the Paris Conservatoire when this magnificent score was introduced in 1904 at a Société Nationale de Musique concert. Dedicated to Fauré the works similarity to the sound world of Debussy’s quartet is unequivocal but adopts a more liberated approach. Remarkably well played is the opening movement Allegro moderato (très doux) exquisitely and intensely lyrical that evokes for me a glorious idyll in the manner of Arcadia. Memorable with playing as light and lively as a champagne perry is the compelling second movement marked Assez vif (très rythmé) with its pizzicato sections that open and close the work. In the manner of a nocturne the third movement Très lent is intensely meditative and reflective and the refreshing Finale, Vif et agité with its numerous meter changes is vivacious and full of life bristling with bursts of energy in the hands of Quatuor Varèse. Playing throughout with insight and controlled musicianship Quatuor Varèse brings out the expressive beauty and tasteful excellence of the Ravel.

Of the competing versions in the catalogue of the Ravel Quartet the competition is fierce. Quatuor Varèse excels with an excellent account that inhabits the same elevated company of the finest versions around. The classic 1960s account from the Quartetto Italiano on Philips still sounds satisfying; however, leading the field is the intensely compelling 2008 account from the Quatuor Ébene recorded at Limousin on Virgin Classics. Coupled with the Fauré and Debuusy quartets one really can’t go wrong with the Quatuor Ébene release.

In all three works it is hard to fault the innate musicianship of Quatuor Varèse especially with its emphasis on refined textures, impeccable ensemble and intonation. Recorded at La Ferme de Villefavard en Limousin the sound team provides crystal-clear quality and an ideal instrumental balance.

Michael Cookson