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Ravel, Tailleferre, Milhaud / Leipzig String Quartet

Release Date: 01/24/2006 
Label:  Md&g (Dabringhaus & Grimm) Gold Catalog #: 3071359   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Maurice RavelGermaine TailleferreDarius Milhaud
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Leipzig String Quartet
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 0 Hours 51 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Evaluating performances of Ravel?s String Quartet is a little like trying to nail Jello to a tree. Some readings seem perfect from a textual standpoint, but the playing can be so straightforward and technique-oriented that the emotional content gets submerged (e.g., recordings by the Emerson, Juilliard, and Tokyo Quartets). Other accounts may sound convincing on first hearing, but they lose their allure when the score is consulted. Such was the case for me with the Borodin Quartet (Chandos) and the Quartetto Italiano?s versions for EMI and Philips: all three suffer from a slow, heavy approach to the Scherzo that misses the stipulated Read more style="font-style:italic">Assez vif/Trés rythmé . One first-rate account is compromised by wretched acoustics (the echo-laden 1951 Stuyvesant Quartet on a Bridge CD). Once in a while, the coupling is flawed: the Vlach Quartet (Supraphon) is excellent in the Ravel, but its discmate (Debussy?s String Quartet) is ruined by plodding tempos and syrupy phrasing. Then there?s the issue of availability: several of my favorites, such as the stereo Galimir Quartet (Vanguard) and historic recordings by the Capet and Calvet Quartets (Biddulph and Danté, respectively) are currently out of print, while the effervescent 1959 Paganini Quartet (Kapp 9038) still remains in LP limbo.

On this 2005 release, we have a seductive account of the Ravel by the Leipzig String Quartet, coupled with fascinating, little-heard works by Tailleferre and Milhaud. What, no Debussy coupling? I?m afraid not, and that?s my major gripe: MDG?s miserly total time is only 50:42, so there was plenty of room to include the Debussy Quartet for contrast. Be that as it may, this is one of the most beautiful accounts of the Ravel in my experience. It?s warmly expressive, intensely phrased, and the recorded sound is full and rich. The individual movement timings are well within the interpretive norm (8:07, 6:06, 8:17, 4:40), and intonation is secure throughout. Anton Seidel?s sensitive playing on first violin deserves special praise. To my ears, he?s superior to Alphonse Onnou in the 1933 composer-supervised recording by the Pro Arte Quartet (Andante), if not quite matching the eloquence of Joseph Calvet, Lucien Capet, or the Paganini?s Henri Temianka. But here and there I do have a few reservations about the Leipzig?s interpretation. Some of the phrasing is occasionally languid in a manner more appropriate to Debussy, the Scherzo could use a little more raw-fingered pluck in the pizzicatos (the Paganini Quartet is really superb in that department), and the loud burst of energy that opens the finale is a tad excessive. Still, this is one of the finest recordings currently available. My over-all favorites remain the 1936/37 Calvet Quartet (Danté?s vintage transfer is astonishingly immediate), the 1927/28 Capet Quartet (coupled with the most ethereal, haunting Debussy Quartet in my memory), and the stereo Paganini Quartet. The last-named is desperately in need of CD issue, as is the group?s earlier mono LP (RCA LM 146, a genuine collector?s item).

Germaine Tailleferre (1892?1983) was the only female member in the group of French composers known as ?Les Six? (the others were Honegger, Milhaud, Poulenc, Auric, and Durey). Her original surname was Taillefesse but, according to Baker?s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, it ?was altered to dispel the unwanted anatomical association in the second syllable? (or, to put it less delicately, ?fesse? in French means buttock). She studied with Ravel and was the only ?Les Six? member to maintain contact with the older composer (she participated in Sunday gatherings at Ravel?s home during the 1920s). Like Ravel and Debussy, Tailleferre wrote only one string quartet. It exhibits some remarkable similarities to Ravel?s in terms of style, mood, and harmony. But while Ravel?s is in four movements (vs. Tailleferre?s three) and has a first movement written in full-scale sonata form, Tailleferre?s work is more like a series of short epigrams (the entire piece lasts less than 10 minutes). Modéré combines pensive enchantment with dark undertones and sounds very Ravelian. Intermède opens with fairy lightness and proceeds to nostalgic musings where each fiddle has something to say. The austere finale, Vif, is almost like Bartók in its insistent motor rhythms and bleak melancholy. This is an utterly spellbinding quartet, and Leipzig?s performance of it completely outclasses the only other recording I know (the Porter Quartet on an all-Tailleferre CD from Helicon).

The String Quartet No. 4 by Darius Milhaud (1892?1974), which like Tailleferre?s was written in 1918, also has just three movements. It?s a strange, bitonal piece that starts out with a cheerful Vif with ominous signs lurking on the fringe. The second movement (Funèbre) is the work?s core: it has a depressingly single-minded dirge theme that I couldn?t get out of my head for days afterward; it consumes 8:24 of the work?s total timing of 13:34 here. The concluding Très animé presents the first movement?s thematic material in a whirling, macabre mixture of chant and dance. While extremely well played, the Leipzig?s reading strikes me as a little heavy and oppressive compared with the lighter, more nimble Quatuor Parisii on a five-disc Naïve CD set of Milhaud?s 18 string quartets.

The Leipzig?s winners here are the Ravel and, especially, the Tailleferre. Recommended.

FANFARE: Jeffrey J. Lipscomb
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Works on This Recording

Quartet for Strings in F major by Maurice Ravel
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Leipzig String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1902-1903; France 
Quartet for Strings by Germaine Tailleferre
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Leipzig String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1918; France 
Quartet for Strings no 4, Op. 46 by Darius Milhaud
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Leipzig String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1918; Brazil 

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