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Ernest CHAUSSON (1855-1899)
Concerto for Violin, Piano and String Quartet in D major, Op. 21 (1889-91) [44.32]
String Quartet in C minor, Op. 35 (1898-99) completed by Vincent d'Indy (1900) [29:04]
Philharmonia Chamber Players
Gabriele Pieranunzi (violin); Jin Ju (piano)
rec. 3-5 September 2018, Palazzo Santa Chiara, Tropea, Italy AULICUS ALC0029 [73:76]
Ah – another new release with the programme and notes in a miniscule font, reversed out against a mud-brown background and specifically designed to alienate its major market of persons of a certain age who no longer possess 20-20 vision – if they ever did….
I readily concede, however, that the cover artwork by Simone Malatesta is attractive, employing what I took to be a detail from Renoir’s Les Grandes Baigneuses, an assumption confirmed only by my eventually spotting the that information on the back cover of the booklet couched in a typeface even smaller than the rest – indeed the smallest I have ever seen. Not having an extra from “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” to hand, I removed my glasses and my dint of some squinting and peering was able to read the legend “Paint (sic): The large bathers – Renoir”.
Three more moans concerning minutiae and trivia: first, why do so many labels persist in failing to provide timings for the whole work instead of just the timings only for individual movements? Secondly, in the instructions indicated by the composer for each movement, French acute accents are missing or wrongly indicated as upright strokes after, rather than above the vowel they modify. Finally, the label logo is easily misread as “Aulius” rather than “Aulicus” owing to the over-fanciful elaboration of the central “c” as a red…something. I realised that I had got the name wrong in the heading of this review only when I saw a tiny email address in the booklet. Do these things matter? Perhaps not, but surely it’s not so hard to get them right, regardless.
Having got those gripes out of my system, I’ll proceed to consider the music itself.
Chausson found the process of composition slow and laborious and was acutely self-critical, with the result that his output before his lamentably early death was so small and select that any recording of his work demands serious respect and consideration; however, there is no shortage of recordings of either of the works here, which are frequently paired. I was familiar with the string quartet via an excellent account on the Naxos label by the Quatuor Ludwig but other, more celebrated quartets, such as the Emersons, the Juilliard and the Chilingirians have recorded the quartet and similarly the Concert has been recorded by ensembles augmented by eminent soloists, so the competition is strong. Fortunately, this issue need fear no comparisons.
The recording acoustic is full, resonant and rich – very suitable for the rhapsodic nature of music which is immediately redolent of Brahms in its passionate outpourings in long, melodic lines, as if infused with the yearning of Act 3 of Tristan und Isolde. The violin and piano might be equal partners on paper but to my ears the former is dominant - perhaps because the work was dedicated to the virtuoso violinist Ysaÿe - its soaring phrases underpinned by frequent arpeggios from the piano. The work is an interesting hybrid of concerto and chamber music in style and sonance, rather diffuse but "punching above its weight” in terms of depth of sound and complexity of texture, considering that they are produced by only six instruments in concert. This is very lyrical, free-flowing music and it is flawlessly executed by the ensemble here, which encompasses every mood, from the turbulence of the first movement, through the lilting surge of the brief Sicilienne, to the grave melancholy of the slow movement, where Chausson achieves a new, stark simplicity of utterance with progressive string chords sounded over a dark ostinato figure by the piano. Its climax is intensely woeful but the mood is lightened by light, propulsive thrust of the finale which propelled towards a thrilling conclusion. The players here convey perfectly the surging exuberance of this music.
The first movement of the quartet quotes Debussy’s own quartet in homage. The steady pace of its opening is just as the composer indicates “Grave – modéré”, evincing that admixture of restless agitation and lyricism which we hear in the concerto and is so characteristic of Chausson. The slow movement - "très calme - is in both senses at the heart of the quartet, a serene, gravely beautiful development of one, broad theme, suavely played here. The jaunty last movement was completed by Chausson’s friend Vincent d'Indy after his death. It is similarly intense and Brahmsian in mood yet was also inspired by Beethoven’s String Quartet, Op. 127. Despite those influences, it is very original in style, pursuing lyrical, rhapsodic excursions in close harmonies and taking quirky, unexpected directions, but it is perhaps the least satisfying of the three movements; to me, its progress sounds a bit arbitrary and uninspired compared with what has gone before and the conclusion has a slightly fragmented, "tacked-on" feeling to it – perhaps because the last few bars were written by d’Indy.
These two works – still rare in concert – could hardly be given better advocacy than by the musicians here and anyone keen to round out their Chausson collection need not hesitate. Given the excellence of the music-making, I am prepared to forgive the inconvenience of the miniscule fonts in the literature…