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René GERBER (1908-2006)
Quartet No. 2 (1934) [10:08]
Quartet No. 4 (1947) [13:32]
Quartet No. 6 (1994) [12:56]
Ernest BLOCH (1880-1959)
String Quartet No. 2 (1945) [33:57]
Quatuor Terpsycordes
rec. 2017, Studio Ernest Ansermet RTS, Geneva
GALLO CD-1500 [72:33]

This fascinating release twins two Swiss-born composers, one completely new to me, and the other more familiar. I doubt that many readers will have come across René Gerber, so some background information is in order. He was born in Travers (Neuchâtel), Switzerland in 1908. He initially studied dentistry in Zurich, but a concert featuring a Volkmar Andreae première set his life on a new course. He enrolled at the Zürich Conservatory, where he was taught composition by Andrae and counterpoint by Paul Müller. Further studies took him to the Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris where he studied with Paul Dukas, Nadia Boulanger, Robert Siohan and Pierre Dupont. He returned to Switzerland and, from 1940-47, taught music at the Collège Latin à Neuchâtel; he then became Director of the Conservatoire de Musique de Neuchâtel until 1951. Having an interest in art, he co-founded the Galerie Pro Arte in Peseux, dividing his time between it and composing. He died in 2006 aged 98.

Gerber's music favours concise forms, diatonic harmonies and looks towards Poulenc, Damase and Françaix for a lead. I find it tuneful, melodically gifted, embracing modality and polytonality. Between 1933-94 he wrote six string quartets, all published posthumously. None of them appear to have been performed in his lifetime. This recording offers nos. 2, 4 and 6. Each captures diverse moods - joy, sadness and sentimentality. The early Second Quartet of 1934 illustrates this perfectly. After an upbeat opening movement, the middle movement is doleful and restrained, with the finale conveying unbridled joy.

There's no denying that Gerber had upped his game compositionally by 1947 when the Fourth Quartet was written. I find this work not only more complex but more satisfying. The bustling, neoclassically-styled first movement has echoes of Stravinsky, yet throughout we remain in a tonally centred domain. The glowing Adagio is a lament, reflective and sombre, with diaphanous scoring emitting a luminous radiance. I immediately thought of Jean Cras, especially his Piano Trio, when I heard the third movement. There's a feeling of forward momentum in the flurry of activity.

It was another forty-seven years before Gerber composed the Sixth Quartet. Still firmly anchored in the tonal idiom, this opus takes a backward glance to his youthful quartet. The work gives a respectful nod to Viennese Romanticism. The opener is pastorally inflected. The 'Schubertian' middle movement overflows with charm and lyricism. The innocent simplicity of the 'Ländler' finale has an endearing warmth.

Ernest Bloch’s String Quartet No. 2 dates from 1945, with the grim reality of the Second World War forming a potent backdrop. Anguish and despair permeate the soul of this heart-rending score. The Quartet is in four movements, with the first forlorn and disconsolate. The Presto, which follows, has a spiky vehemence, which boils over with anger and aggression. The slow movement is imbued with grief and desolation, with the finale similarly angst-ridden.         

The Quatuor Terpsycordes were founded in 1997 and are based in Geneva. They love to venture into less-trodden territory, and their discography includes music by Gregorio Zanon and Louis Vierne, in addition to more familiar repertoire. They give outstanding performances of these chamber works by two very different composers - Gerber's joy at being alive, in total contrast to Bloch's existential torment and endless questioning. Their passionate intensity in the Bloch has a striking potency. In addition, they’ve been captured in first-class sound and balance. I must also add that the booklet notes, in French and English, certainly didn't leave me feeling short-changed.

Stephen Greenbank


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