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Karol SZYMANOWSKI (1882-1937)
String Quartet No. 1 Op.37 (1917) [18:17]
String Quartet No. 2 Op.56 (1927) [17:52]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Quartet in F major (1902-3) [28:35]
Quatour Joachim
rec. 2015, Château d’Essertaux, France
CALLIOPE CAL1747 [64:46]

The Quatuor Joachim have produced a variety of interesting recordings, mostly of French repertoire, [review] in the last decade or so. Their personnel are a mixture of French and Polish musicians and on this disc they present works from both those countries with an early work by Ravel and middle-period and late works by Szymanowski.

Szymanowski’s first quartet dates from the same period that produced the Symphony No. 3, the Mythes for Violin and Piano, and the Violin Concerto No. 1. The Quartet originally was to have four movements but the composer never wrote the last. While the work has much of the same atmosphere as the other works of this time, it is also more severe, with a notably nocturnal cast to the first movement and more of the influence of Stravinsky than one might expect. The development is clever and leads to an impassioned coda.

The succeeding andante semplice has a simple, almost Brahmsian, opening, but quickly becomes more typical of Szymanowski, although Brahms never totally disappears. There are wide spaces between the instrumental lines and a slight folk-like tone. Szymanowski synthesizes these various elements very adroitly in what amounts to a precis of his compositions at this time. The third movement is a polytonal tour de force with each instrument playing in a different key. One can see why Szymanowski did not feel that a fourth movement was needed; the third seems to have accomplished everything he set out to do technically and emotionally as well as providing a perfect capstone to the whole quartet.

Ravel was even younger than Szymanowski when he wrote his first, and only, string quartet. Although he was already known for the Menuet Antique and the Pavane pour une Infante Défunte the quartet would help to make him the most prominent French composer of his generation. It is in four movements and on the surface, completely classical in form, but classicism à la Ravel. The allegro moderato shows the gentle side of the composer’s personality and is a little reminiscent of the music of the dedicatee-Ravel’s teacher Fauré. We are quickly made aware that Ravel has an absolute mastery of quartet “sound” and one can be excused for wishing he had written another quartet. The development proceeds in typical fashion to a wonderful recapitulation as Ravel pares the sound down to nothing. In the next movement the composer’s Basque side comes to the fore and the scherzo proper is very passionate while the trio section is wistful and sad. The succeeding slow movement is quiet and nostalgic, becoming almost tragic towards the end. This is succeeded by a sort of rondo, with cyclic use of material from throughout the piece, leading to a satisfying conclusion.

Szymanowski’s Quartet No. 2 is from his final, folk-influenced period, although by the time it was written the composer had completely assimilated Polish folk music into his own style. Again, there are three movements, with the first opening in a Mahlerian vein as the nocturnal main theme repeatedly tries to assert itself only to fall back into the night. Equally Mahlerian emotions pervade the scherzo but now accentuated by savage harmonies and a rare, inexorable quality. The concluding lento begins desultorily but finally achieves a sense of hard-won triumph.

As said above, the personnel of the Quatuor Joachim are a Franco-Polish mix, and, as might be expected, they perform idiomatically in all three works on this disc. In the Ravel quartet they show the requisite light touch as regards rhythm and the nostalgic and summery feeling that the work demands. But they are also passionate when they need to be. Only in the fourth movement, marked “vif et agité”, do they fail; they are almost too “agité” and this leaves the listener with a slight feeling of disappointment at the work’s end.

Szymanowski’s impressionism is very different from that of Ravel, but the Joachims easily bridge the gap. Most importantly, their instrumental lines are clear and crisp, most notably in the last movement of the first quartet. Their tempi are well-chosen and they are au courant with Szymanowski’s unique atmosphere; witness’ their ability to produce the requisite “hovering” quality in much of the same work. They do equally well with the second quartet, especially with the emotional shadings and sense of hollowness so pervasive in this work. One must also compliment their choice of venue. The Château d’Essertaux provides an intimate acoustic that is perfect for chamber music. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the accompanying notes. They provide scant musicological or biographical information. But otherwise this is a fine disc and I look forward to further explorations by the Joachims.

William Kreindler


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