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Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky / Alban Berg Quartet


Release Date: 04/10/2001 
Label:  Emi Great Recordings Of The Century Catalog #: 67551   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Claude DebussyMaurice RavelIgor Stravinsky
Performer:  Günter PichlerGerhard SchulzValentin ErbenThomas Kakuska
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Alban Berg String Quartet
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 6 Mins. 

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This CD is reissued by ArkivMusic.

Notes and Editorial Reviews

Only superlatives come to mind when describing performances of such distinctive individuality.

Only superlatives come to mind when describing the Alban Berg Quartet's form in these performances. The Orlando (Philips) are never less than impressive, but they do not possess the distinctive individuality of their rival. For instance, whereas the Andantino movement of the Debussy finds the Orlando a bit static, the Alban Berg manage to convey the doucement marking both in regard to the character and the string texture. The EMI recording favours a mellower and more resonant acoustic with a clearly defined instrumental balance, thus enabling one to hear much more of the music contained in individual parts.

--
Read more Gramophone [8/1986]

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A successful recording of the Debussy/Ravel string quartet coupling has to realize and balance two opposing demands: the need to secure absolute linear clarity and articulation, and the need to provide requisite atmosphere. These two works are highly perfumed post-Romantic utterances that are, paradoxically, rigorously constructed in the best Classical sense. Mike an ensemble too closely, and the listener becomes too aware of their ingenious arrangement of girders and cross members, which, in and of themselves, can constitute a marvelous musical experience. Mike them too distantly, and their ineffable atmosphere arises and dominates, also pleasingly, as if the result of a conjuror's trick. In neither case is the story wholly told.

In this review I have chosen to focus on recorded sound because in auditioning five recordings by way of preparation—the ancient Stuyvesant String Quartet version once available on Nonesuch H-71007, and those by the Quatuor Ysaÿe (London 430 434-2, no longer available), the Hagen String Quartet (DG 437 836-2, no longer available), the Emerson String Quartet (once on DG 427 320-2, now on DG 45509); and the Tokyo String Quartet (Sony 62413), I have found a remarkable consensus in tenus of tempo, phrasing, articulation, and balance. My first encounter with the Debussy and Ravel quartets was via that old Nonesuch offering, in wretchedly enhanced stereo. As substandard as the sound was, it revealed two very sensitive, well-thought-out, and nicely executed performances. Linear clarity was there, indeed harshly so, and the cavernous, artificially reverberant sound provided a sense of atmosphere (sort of). What was right about that offering was the quite effective balance it struck between the music's contradictory demands, its below-par sound notwithstanding. The Quatuor Ysaÿe's effort, miked way back, delivered atmosphere aplenty at the expense of detail in a reading that was too italicized in phrasing for my tastes. The Hagen and Emerson String Quartets are slanted in the opposite direction. Both are recorded too closely, imparting marginally too analytical a view of the music. I am resorting to that weasel word "marginally," because we are dealing with very small differences. Both performances are excellent, the Emerson winning the palm by virtue of its overall fluency and its typically perfect intonation and articulation. The Emerson is also afforded the most timbrally rich sound of the lot, and an overall clarity that enables one to take musical dictation from its recording. Therein lies its virtue and its failing.

This EMI "Great Recordings of the Century" reissue of the estimable Alban Berg Quartet's 1984 traversal of these two scores goes straight down the middle of the paradox, and achieves, as had the Stuyevesant's, an uncannily right balance. As in the case of the Emerson, their performances cannot be faulted on any technical grounds, and offer well-thought-out and deeply felt interpretations. The fault of this release (and again it is a marginal one) is that its 1984 sound is, as often typical of EMI recordings of that vintage, a bit harsh on the top end.

So now, to satisfy the Consumer Union function of Fanfare: I recommend it for all the above reasons. If, however, you want closer to state-of-the-art sound (and don't care that much about atmosphere), go with the Emerson Quartet. I will admit that my all-time favorite recording of this coupling is still the one by the Tokyo Quartet. Its sound is less appealing than that given the Alban Berg Quartet—a bit raspy and with a slightly tubby room tone—but it conveys the most spontaneous and playfully whimsical view of these two works. Having said this, I am not about to surrender these Alban Berg readings to my local used-CD store. They are, typically, significant, and outclass all but the Tokyo Quartet's version.

And now for the factor that may tip your decision: the coupling. These recordings of Stravinsky's few works for string quartet are superb. The Three Pieces for String Quartet (1914) present a strange and uncannily Russian take on the then-emerging Second Viennese School. The music is folk inspired yet deeply weird and, as rendered by a string quartet, particularly this ensemble, satisfying. The Concertino, previously known to me through Stravinsky's 1952 orchestration, shows itself, in this performance of its original scoring, to be more haunting than in Stravinsky's recasting. And so goes it for the plaintive Double Canon.

-- William Zagorski, FANFARE [9/2001]
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Works on This Recording

1. Quartet for Strings in G minor, Op. 10 by Claude Debussy
Performer:  Günter Pichler (Violin), Gerhard Schulz (Violin), Valentin Erben (Cello),
Thomas Kakuska (Viola)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Alban Berg String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1893; France 
Date of Recording: 04/1984 
Venue:  Evangelical Church, Seon, Switzerland 
Length: 23 Minutes 17 Secs. 
2. Quartet for Strings in F major by Maurice Ravel
Performer:  Günter Pichler (Violin), Valentin Erben (Cello), Thomas Kakuska (Viola),
Gerhard Schulz (Violin)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Alban Berg String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1902-1903; France 
Date of Recording: 12/1984 
Venue:  Evangelical Church, Seon, Switzerland 
Length: 28 Minutes 36 Secs. 
3. Pieces (3) for String Quartet by Igor Stravinsky
Performer:  Valentin Erben (Cello), Thomas Kakuska (Viola), Gerhard Schulz (Violin),
Günter Pichler (Violin)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Alban Berg String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1914; Switzerland 
Date of Recording: 06/1983 
Venue:  Evangelical Church, Seon, Switzerland 
Length: 6 Minutes 24 Secs. 
4. Concertino for String Quartet by Igor Stravinsky
Performer:  Thomas Kakuska (Viola), Günter Pichler (Violin), Gerhard Schulz (Violin),
Valentin Erben (Cello)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Alban Berg String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1920; France 
Date of Recording: 06/1983 
Venue:  Evangelical Church, Seon, Switzerland 
Length: 6 Minutes 6 Secs. 
5. Double Canon for String Quartet by Igor Stravinsky
Performer:  Valentin Erben (Cello), Thomas Kakuska (Viola), Gerhard Schulz (Violin),
Günter Pichler (Violin)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Alban Berg String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1959; USA 
Date of Recording: 06/1983 
Venue:  Evangelical Church, Seon, Switzerland 
Length: 1 Minutes 24 Secs. 

Sound Samples

String Quartet in G minor Op. 10: Animé et très décidé
String Quartet in G minor Op. 10: Assez vif et bien rythmé
String Quartet in G minor Op. 10: Andantino (Doucement expressif)
String Quartet in G minor Op. 10: Très modéré - très animé
String Quartet in F Major (1903): First movement: Moderato très doux
String Quartet in F Major (1903): Second movement: Assez vif-très rhthmé
String Quartet in F Major (1903): Third movement: Très lent
String Quartet in F Major (1903): Fourth movement: Vif et agité
Stücke für Streichquartett, Drei Stücke Für Streichquartett (1914): Nr.1
Stücke für Streichquartett, Drei Stücke Für Streichquartett (1914): Nr.2
Stücke für Streichquartett, Drei Stücke Für Streichquartett (1914): Nr.3
Stücke für Streichquartett: Concertino (1920)
Stücke für Streichquartett: Double Canon (Raoul Dufy In Memoriam) (1959)

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