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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
String Quartet in G minor, L.85, op.10 (1893) [23:55]
Germaine TAILLEFERRE (1892-1983)
String Quartet (1919) [10:01]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
String Quartet in F major, M.35 (1903) [25:08]
Stenhammar Quartet
rec. 2016/17, Petruskyrkan, Stockholm
ALBA ABCD431 SACD [61:10]

There are literally dozens of recordings of the Ravel and Debussy String Quartets; currently (June 2019), 79 for the former and 73 for the latter are listed in the Arkivmusic Catalogue, so, one more of each is welcome, but hardly startling, news. I spend most of my review considering the excellent and imaginative String Quartet by Germaine Tailleferre.

Little needs be said about the genesis and content of the splendid and well-known string quartets by Debussy and Ravel:  a few brief comments are enough.

Debussy’s String Quartet in G minor was written when the composer was 31 years of age. It is one of the earliest works to display his mature style. The formal construction is cyclical with the opening theme occurring in various guises throughout the work. The balance of mood is between wistful lyricism and high drama. Look out for the studied restatement of the work’s opening theme, accompanied by a vibrant pizzicato in the Scherzo. The mood of the forlorn Andantino is emphasised by muted strings. The Finale is forceful and constantly looks back to the opening bars of the quartet, although they are presented in various forms.

Ravel’s Quartet in F major is his only exercise in this medium. It was begun in 1902, while he was still a student at the Paris Conservatoire. It owes much to the impressionism and tone colouring of Debussy; certainly, Debussy himself was of this opinion and there is some truth in this assessment. For example, Ravel’s essay uses the work’s opening theme as a basis for the other movements and both quartets placed the Scherzo second. Yet there are differences too: Ravel’s music is more rhapsodic than urbane, especially in the last two movements.

Germaine Tailleferre was one of the so-called ‘Les Six’ but she is less-well-known than her colleagues such as Francis Poulenc, Darius Milhaud and Arthur Honegger and even those giants of French music do not receive the popular acclaim in the UK that they might once have had. The two other members, Louis Durey and Georges Auric, have also suffered decline, although the latter is still recalled for his excellent film scores, especially for the Ealing Studios.

The term ‘Les Six’ was coined by the critic Henri Colet to draw a parallel between the Russian ‘Five’ (Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Modest Mussorgsky, Alexander Borodin, Mily Balakirev, and CÚsar Cui), contemporary French composers and Erik Satie.  It is hard to define the musical compatibility of this group, save to say that they rejected the overblown Romanticism of Richard Wagner and the mists of ‘Impressionism.’ The defining mood may have been neo-classicism with hints of jazz and folk music.

At the time of the completion of her string quartet, Germaine Tailleferre was part of the Parisian set that included the artists Pablo Picasso, the sculptor Emmanuel Centore and Amedeo Modigliani. Much of their activity was centred around the eccentric polymath Jean Cocteau. After the conclusion of the Great War, Tailleferre was introduced to the Paris musical establishment in a concert promoted by one of her artist friends; her music was played alongside works by Poulenc and Durey. This included Tailleferre’s Sonatine for string quartet and the ‘Jeux de pleine air’ for two pianos; both were well-received. Shortly after this concert, she added an extra movement to the Sonatine and revised it as the present String Quartet; it was after this success that she was invited to join ‘Les Six’.

The opening movement of the String Quartet was dedicated to the pianist Artur Rubenstein and holds its previous title of ‘sonatine’ to account. It is built on two contrasting themes, both of which create a dreamy (dare I say, impressionistic?) mood, but does not have a development section. There is some intensity here, with some piquant dissonances. The middle movement is described as an ‘intermezzo’: it is a delightful little scherzo, almost will o’ the wisp in places. The trio section is darker in mood and it is here that the influence of Ravel is most felt. The finale is the longest movement in this quartet. Written in the rhythm of a ‘saltarello’, it features music that is sometimes aggressive and dissonant, balanced by moments of relaxation and repose. We hear some brief motor rhythms, more often associated with Bartok. However, the movement ends rather enigmatically with a quiet coda.

I found the Stenhammar Quartet’s performance of these three string quartets thoroughly engaging and satisfying. The playing is always well-balanced, always presenting the subtle, nuanced mood of this music. Warmth and sensitivity are offered where appropriate, as well as the occasional rhapsodic abandon.

The sound quality is excellent and allows the listener to appreciate every detail of the playing.  The liner notes, printed in English and Swedish, are informative.

On the one hand, this CD is yet another edition of the two most famous French string quartets, but on the other, there is the added value in the outstanding offering by Germaine Tailleferre. This latter is a worthy piece of chamber music that deserves to be in the repertoire alongside its better-known companions.

John France

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