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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
String Quartet in G Minor, Op.10 (1893) [26:10]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
String Quartet in F (1903) [28:41]
Tinalley String Quartet
rec. 2017, The Salon, Melbourne Recital Centre, Melbourne, Australia
DECCA 4816906 [54:56]

This new album offers the classic combination of two archetypal “impressionistic” quartets which has already been recorded by many eminent string quartets, including the Alban Berg, the Quartetto Italiano, the Juilliard, the Borodin, the Belcea, the Lindsays, the Melos and at least a score more. I cannot say that I am familiar with many of them, but my introduction to these works was serendipitous; I acquired almost at random the (then) super-budget Naxos issue by the Kodaly Quartet on the strength of their excellent Haydn chamber music. That was recorded, unbelievably, over thirty years ago whereas this new issue is from 2017, played by what the notes call “one of Australia’s finest classical musical exports”, the Tinalley Quartet in their first recording for Decca. Given the strength and profusion of competitive versions, a new recording has to be really good to merit notice – and this one is.

Both quartets are youthful masterpieces, proclaiming their composers’ genius; they have always been paired and compared, in that they are representative of a very French mood and movement which concerns itself with fleeting nuances of emotion, splashes of instrumental colour and a kind of febrile questing, but Ravel, the "Swiss watchmaker" (in Stravinsky's phrase), brings greater thematic structure and more of a late Romantic idiom to his quartet, even though it was written a full ten years later than Debussy's and was doubtless influenced by it. Debussy is perhaps more the true Impressionist with his diaphanous, ephemeral scoring and, despite receiving its first performance as early as 1893, his quartet still proclaims a more restless modernity than Ravel’s.

The Tinalleys sustain a lean, astringent tone, eschewing any suggestion of indulgence or sentimentality and the very close recording tends to harden their tone further; sometimes I feel that a little more and space and distance around the sound would have been welcome. Other interpreters favour a warmer, more lyrical approach but the Tinalleys’ clean, clear playing sits well with the urgency of Debussy’s inspiration, even if their slightly more careful phrasing and more cautious tempi in the first movement leads me to think that I would like just a little more vehemence in those more febrile, “très décidé” passages which anticipate the emotional turmoil of Pelléas et Mélisande. The pizzicato sections of the second movement are delicate and delightfully piquant but also with a nice undercurrent of the eerie just beneath the surface. The slow movement is where this recording really scores: the close, cupped sound, immaculate intonation and excellent balance among the instruments create a suitably enclosed, serene and otherworldly ambience. That mood is skilfully sustained and carried over into the introduction of the finale, creating a thematic and emotional bridge between the movements before the restless questioning - "très mouvementé et avec passion" - of the conclusion. The Tinalleys’ more moderate tempo here paying dividends by avoiding the one flaw in the Kodalys’ recording, which is to rely too heavily upon a sudden acceleration in the coda, thereby making it sound artificially grafted on.

The Ravel quartet follows a more neo-classical structure than Debussy's; it is also more lyrical and rhapsodic but clearly borrows from Debussy prominent ideas such as the use of pizzicato in the second movement Scherzo and the recycling of key themes and Wagnerian-style leitmotifs throughout the whole work. Both quartets evoke the perfumed mystery of the nocturne, but Ravel's slow third movement is unsurprisingly more redolent of the Spanish garden. By contrast, the ferocity of attack in the opening of the finale is startling and its breathless moto perpetuo is sustained through five minutes without any sense of scrambling.

The almost psychotropic clarity of the close digital sound and the instrumentalists’ homogeneity lend great immediacy and intensity to their playing here. As in the Debussy quartet, the dark, brooding slow movement lies at the heart of the work and all four members excel in its execution; this is world-class quartet-playing.

Ralph Moore

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