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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
String Quartet in G, Op. 10 (1893) [25:43]
Danses sacrée et profane (1904) [10:03]
André CAPLET (1878-1925)
Les Prières (1915-17) [9:47]
Conte fantastique (1923) [17:17]
Marielle Nordmann (harp)
Yann Dubost (double-bass)
Françoise Masset (soprano)
Quatuor Debussy
rec. Espace Monod, Vaulx-en-Velin, France, December 2012
TIMPANI 1C1207 [62:50]

The Debussy quartet starts the program with a jolt. The Quatuor Debussy digs into the opening chords incisively, with a slightly edgy tone that, in fact, persists through the performance, noticeably at peak moments. It clearly doesn't arise from a lack of either musicality or technique: the music is intelligently shaped throughout, mostly with assured scansion – the cello at 1:13 of the finale sounds briefly unsure of its footing -- and the playing has plenty of character. The scherzo manages to sound at once buoyant and weighty, and the (literally) muted Andantino – introspective and restrained, with a more rhapsodic middle section – is quite moving. Still, the mild edge is disconcerting in music usually associated with fluency and polish.

I'd have preferred less aggressive-sounding climaxes. I'd also have liked more strongly terraced dynamics among contrasting musical elements, particularly in the outer movements. And the outpouring at 4:22 of the finale sounds curiously opaque – hard to accomplish with just four players, when you think about it.

The work billed cryptically as Danses pour harpe et cordes turns out to be the familiar Danses sacrée et profane. Most recorded performances use multiple strings, but, once past the thin-textured opening phrases, the piece works equally well in this scaled-down format. The lyrical phrases of the Danse sacrée are lovely, with some surge into the richer textures; the Danse profane is brisker, more authentically waltz-like than most, with the later pages bringing a glowing Romantic warmth. Harpist Marielle Nordmann captures the right improvisatory feeling for the first dance and is suitably rippling and evanescent in the second.
It's the two works by Debussy's friend and colleague André Caplet that will more likely pique the interest of veteran listeners. Caplet is probably best remembered for orchestrating the Children's Corner suite and the ballet La boîte à joujoux from the older composer's solo piano originals. He was successful, however, as a conductor and composer in his own right, winning the Prix de Rome in 1901 for his cantata Myrrha. His music does, predictably, reflect Debussy's influence, but among an eclectic range of such.

Les Prières uses a Debussyan harmonic and textural idiom to evoke what might be termed a spacious unease. Some of the textures, like the opening of the Salutation angélique, have a shimmering lightness. The largely stepwise motion and text-based vocal lines recall plainchant: Françoise Masset intones them with natural, easy inflections and a nice devotional mood, though close microphoning underlines a slight strain as the voice ascends.

The Conte fantastique, in contrast, is an unexpectedly modern-sounding score, based on Edgar Allan Poe's Masque of the Red Death. It opens mysteriously, with searching, unsettled figures followed by a series of knotty dissonant chords. Succeeding episodes suggest Debussy -- some the unstable, elusive harmonies of his late ballet Jeux; others his buoyant, fluid early style -- and alternate with more angular passages. An avant-garde touch comes at 14:38 with a series of knocks executed on the wood of the harp, corresponding to the arrival of midnight in the narrative. In this score, the players' incisive style is very much to the point, and they project the piece with alert rhythms and clear shaping.

If the Caplet pieces interest you, they're done well here, and I doubt they'll have much competition in the near future. For the Debussy pieces, the Quartetto Italiano (Philips), the Juilliard (Sony), and even the somewhat loose-limbed Guarneri (RCA) all play the Quartet more suavely than the Quatuor Debussy; while, among numerous capable performances of the Danses, it's the Boulez/Cleveland (Sony) that lingers in the mind.

Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.

Previous review: Stephen Greenbank (Recording of the Month)



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