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César FRANCK (1822-1890)
String Quartet in D major, FWV9 (1889-90) [43:21]
Ernest CHAUSSON (1855-1899)
Chanson perpétuelle, for mezzo-soprano, piano and string quartet, Op. 37 (1898) [6.32]
Quatuor Zaïde
Karine Deshayes (mezzo-soprano)
Jonas Vitaud (piano)
rec. 2017, Salle de concert Arsenal, Metz, France

On NoMadMusic, Quatuor Zaïde plays two high quality works by César Franck and Ernest Chausson, composers who were teacher and pupil at the Paris Conservatory.

Liege born César Franck was late to develop his mature style, writing his masterpieces when he was approaching or in his sixties, the primary exception being Panis Angelicus. Franck’s chamber music comprises several impassioned works which are some of the most famous in all late 19th Century chamber music, notable are the mighty Piano Quintet in F minor (1879) and the enduringly popular Violin Sonata in A major (1886).

Terribly undervalued today, the magnificent String Quartet in D major, one of Franck’s final works seemed to demand of him a great deal of effort. Working at the score from 1889/90 he had prepared by studying the string quartets of great Austro/German masters Beethoven, Schubert and his younger contemporary Brahms. At its 1890 première in Paris at a Société Nationale de Musique concert the String Quartet was received with tremendous enthusiasm by the audience, but it soon fell into undeserved neglect. This substantial and richly structured quartet would prove to be one of the few successful premières in Franck’s career.

Franck constructs the D major score around cyclical material which reappears modified or transformed throughout the movements. In the hands of Quatuor Zaïde, the initial wash of sound is remarkable in the opening movement and evokes a squally and windswept landscape. The Scherzo feels like Schumann in spirit, rather than the lighter Mendelssohnian quality I have often encountered, in a performance that is full of passion and robust attack. Containing some of the most glorious pages ever written by Franck, the third movement Larghetto - the emotional heart of the score - is imbued with romantic playing of aching tenderness. The Finale, marked Allegro molto, is a major apotheosis of the work in which all the previous themes are recapitulated. The work ends with a magical final reminder of the noble song of the Larghetto. Here Quatuor Zaïde communicate the music with dignity and amity, contrasted with recurrent bursts of robust vitality. Of the competition in the record catalogue for Franck’s String Quartet, although I admire both the 2005 account from Spiegel String Quartet on MDG and the 2008 account from Fine Art Quartet on Naxos, I consider Quatuor Zaïde a much stronger performance and it goes to the top of the list. With such commitment, steadfast unity and generous expression chamber music playing doesn’t come much better than as this.

A composer who died well before his time, Chausson’s Chanson perpétuelle (Perpetual Song) from 1898 was the Parisian’s last completed work. Lasting here around six and a half minutes the mélodie (performed here by mezzo-soprano, piano and string quartet) is also known in a version for voice and orchestra. A setting of words from a Charles Cros poem, it describes the range of emotions and feelings of an abandoned woman.

A native French speaker, mezzo-soprano Karine Deshayes sings tastefully, favourably attuned to Chausson’s sound-world, tellingly communicating the melancholic and reflective character of Cros’s text. The playing of pianist Jonas Vitaud is excellent too. Undoubtedly the best-known recording of Chanson perpétuelle using the version for voice, piano and string quartet is the justly celebrated account sung by soprano Jessye Norman with pianist Michel Dalberto and Monte-Carlo String Quartet released in 1983 on Erato (reissued Warner Classics- Apex). Conveying remarkable atmosphere, the American soprano’s performance is righty lauded; however, for my taste her vibrato can be distracting and her pronunciation of the French texts just a touch awkward. On balance it’s hard to choose between the Deshayes and Norman accounts as both have considerable merit.

Recorded at Salle de concert Arsenal in Metz, the Quatuor Zaïde benefit from satisfying clarity and balance which in the Chausson places the mezzo-soprano slightly forward but is no worse for that. Positioned on the wooden stage there is some extraneous noise from the players but nothing that bothered me too much. Yoann Tardivel provides a most helpful and interesting booklet essay and I commend the label for providing French sung texts with English translations. My only grumble is that at just under fifty minutes the playing time is meagre by current standards and a suitable work such as Fauré’s song cycle La Bonne Chanson could have been accommodated.

Issued on NoMadMusic this is a most desirable release with performances of real merit that do full justice to both works with the Franck quartet being a real discovery, for many, I’m sure. For its next album one wonders to which composer Quatuor Zaïde will turn next. My suggestion for a rewarding recording project is for the string quartets of Frank Bridge; more underrated gems of the genre.

Michael Cookson



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