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Jean CRAS (1879-1932)
Piano Quintet (1922) [33:31]
String Quartet 'À ma Bretagne' (1909) [39:32]
Quatuor Sine Qua Non, Jean-Pierre Ferey (piano)
rec. 2018, Studio Sequenza, Montreuil, France
SKARBO DSK4181 [73:39]

The open sea was a constant source of inspiration for Jean Cras, which is hardly surprising. He had a sea-faring career which culminated, in the 1920s, with his appointment as rear admiral and commander-in-chief of the French Navy in Brest. His career enabled him to travel to many exotic locations, which in turn brought him into contact with multifarious cultures. These he incorporated into his music. He was the spiritual son of Duparc, and César Franck provided a model. One can detect subtle hints of Ravel in his lush harmonies and myriad palette of colour.

Cras was in his thirtieth year when he penned his only String Quartet, which he subtitled 'To my Brittany'. At the time he was a professor of naval architecture in Brest. Adopting a four-movement structure, the work is cast in a Classical-Romantic mould, with the figure of Beethoven lingering in the shadows. It is profoundly introspective, dark and unsettled for most of the time. Its rich, sensuous chromatic harmonies will appeal especially to Chausson devotees. Although the scherzo-like third movement is quite animated, it does not really raise a smile. It is only in the fourth movement that the mood lightens and the sun comes out.

The composer was commanding the destroyer Amiral Sénès when he wrote the Piano Quintet. The work is much less introspective than the Quartet. Rather, it is upbeat and shot through with images of the open sea. Sea shanties, exotic climes and African influences pepper this life-enhancing score. As the ship’s engines chug along in the opening bars of the first movement, I am reminded of the third movement of the String Trio, which is similarly permeated with an infectious joie-de-vivre. The second movement, by contrast, is hazily calm and almost soporific. African and Arabian travels are recalled, and I love the way the string players achieve some captivating luminous sonorities. The third movement is a scherzo in all but name. The theme is joy-filled and jaunty and underpinned by some catchy rhythmic ostinatos. The finale is jubilant, and you can hear the pulsating waves in the imaginative piano writing.

The Quatuor Sine Qua Non with pianist Jean-Pierre Ferey convey a great love of the music in their outstanding performances. There is an attractive bloom to the sound, with the players flatteringly captured in the mix. Booklet notes in French and English provide adequate background and context to the music. For those coming to Cras’s music for the first time, this delightful release is the perfect place to start the journey. As for myself, I have every confidence that I will be returning to this recording often.

Stephen Greenbank

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