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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
String Quartet in F major (1902-03) [27:16]
Henri DUTILLEUX (1916-2013)
String Quartet “Ainsi la nuit” (1976) [17:47]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
String Quartet in G minor, Op. 10 (1893) [24:46]
Quatuor Hermès: Omer Bouchez (violin); Elise Liu (violin); Yung-Hsin Chang (viola); Anthony Kondo (cello)
rec. 2016, Teatro Bibiena, Mantua, Italy

There was a time when it was standard practice for the Debussy and Ravel quartets to occupy a whole CD and there are still many out there which do just that. My benchmark for these works, the accounts by Stuttgart’s Melos Quartett (DG), were originally issued without a coupling. Nowadays, though, it is becoming increasingly common to add a third work and the Dutilleux quartet has become a popular disc mate. The recordings by the Juilliard, Belcea, and Arcanto quartets, containing these three pieces, readily come to mind. There are several others with this coupling, too. The youthful Quatuor Hermès enter the fray here and challenge my former benchmark in the Debussy and Ravel works.

Debussy’s early masterpiece has always been one of my favourite string quartets and has received a number of outstanding performances on disc. I am happy to add this new one by Quatuor Hermès to the top echelon. For those CDs containing the same programme I compared the Hermès with the Juilliard (Sony) and Belcea (EMI/Warner) quartets, both which I have in my collection. I found the Juilliard rather heavy and their intonation, especially the viola’s, at times questionable. The Belcea Quartet, on the other hand, have a better blend and a cooler approach. Their tempos are also somewhat quicker and they display a greater dynamic range. Only when the playing becomes loud is there a slight metallic edge to the violins. The Quatuor Hermès are a bit warmer than the Belcea and their instruments blend very well. Indeed, the balance is nigh ideal. They play with real involvement and a superb range of dynamics. They are also given outstanding sound with a tangible presence, but it’s best to lower the volume a little because they are recorded rather closely. The Hermès have waited to record these quartets for several years until they felt they were ready. Proof of this is evident throughout the performance, but particularly in the third movement played here with melting songfulness. I had to go back to the late 70s account by the Melos Quartett for something equal to this version. The Melos are recorded at a lower level and sound a bit more distant. So, although I would never want to part with them, the new recording allows one to hear inner parts of the score which could easily go unnoticed.

The same is more or less true for the Ravel Quartet. The Juilliard are to some extent more deliberate than the other two, but their blend seems better here than in the Debussy. However, though I generally did not notice the same intonation issues here, several of the pizzicatos in the second movement seem slightly under pitch. The Belcea excel in this quartet with their faster tempos and lighter approach. There is an easygoing coolness and “French” ambience that is really attractive. Their second movement is quite exciting, almost devil-may-care, and the veiled sound they produce later in the movement is breathtaking. I would not say the Hermès are really better in this quartet, but are as convincing in their heartier and darker account. They have a fuller sound with dazzling pizzicatos and more apparent attention to the middle voices. The tremolos in the beginning of the fourth movement are especially virtuosic here, as they are in the Juilliard’s account, more so with than with the wholly satisfactory Belcea where the articulation does not seem as clean. The Melos Quartett’s Ravel has worn well, if not quite at the level of their Debussy. They play with less rubato than the Hermès and, like their Debussy, they are recorded less closely.

The third work, Dutilleux’s Ainsi la nuit, was actually commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation for the Juilliard Quartet, although they did not premiere the work. The quartet, bearing the subtitle “Thus the Night,” conjures up all kinds of night sounds and is built from small cells utilizing pizzicato, harmonics, dynamics contrasts, etc. Ainsi la nuit has the characteristic Dutilleux “sound,” but without the kaleidoscopic colours of his orchestral music. There are seven main movements: Nocturne, Miroir d’espace, Litanies, Litanies II, Constellations, Nocturne II, and Temps suspendu. The second, third, fourth, and fifth movements are preceded by very brief introductions, or parentheses, which are separately tracked on the Juilliard and Belcea recordings, but not on the Hermès. The Juilliard Quartet are, of course, renowned for their recordings of modern music and they come into their own in Dutilleux’s quartet. The Belcea are more withdrawn and intimate in their account, while the Hermès, like the Juilliard, are more dramatic and impactful than the Belcea. The Juilliard also demonstrate the lyrical side of the work in such movements as the Litanies II, where they play with warmth and eloquence, and later in the movement excel in the upward slides and almost spooky pizzicatos. The Belcea are not quite as characterful here, but the Hermès are nearly as distinctive, paying special attention to the dynamics and allowing one to appreciate the subsidiary themes. As a whole, all three performances do justice to this quartet.

With their stellar playing and state-of-the art recording, I am tempted to give the palm to the Quatuor Hermès as my first port of call for these quartets. They are clearly deserving, though the Belcea also have much to offer here, as do the Juilliard in the Dutilleux. I also would not want to part with the Melos Quartett in the earlier pieces, and there are others, such as the Quatuor Ebène, who have earned accolades for their Debussy and Ravel. La Dolce Volta contributes a deluxe production with an arty cover design and interviews by the quartet. There are colour photos of the musicians and the historic Teatro Bibiena, where these splendid performances were recorded, but no other discussion of the works. The notes, such as they are, are given in French, English, Japanese, and German.

Leslie Wright

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