Notes and Editorial Reviews
String Quartet. Violin Sonata No. 2 in G
Dante Quartet; Krysia Osostowicz (vn);
Simon Crawford-Phillips (pn)
HYPERION 67759 (72: 26)
The Dante Quartet has received positive notices in these pages for prior releases from a number of contributors, including yours truly, and this review of the
latest addition to the ensemble’s growing discography is not about to sound a sour note. In light, however, of the formidable competition among Debussy and Ravel quartet couplings, it’s a legitimate question to ask if another version was necessary. The answer is a qualified “yes.”
William Zagorski put it best in a
25:1 review of the Alban Berg Quartet’s 1984 reissue in EMI’s “Great Recordings of the Century” series. “A successful recording of the Debussy/Ravel string quartet coupling,” Zagorski said, “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.”
Of course he was exactly right and not just in general, but also with regard to the Berg Quartet’s performances, which remain among the finest in the catalog, though the recorded sound is not ideal. But therein lies the qualification referred to above. While a number of relatively recent recordings of these two works have achieved a high degree of technical polish, stylistic comprehension has been in somewhat shorter supply, a criticism I found myself surprised to be leveling against the Ysaÿe Quartet’s Debussy in 30:5. I’d have thought that if any ensemble could pull it off, surely it would be the French Ysaÿe. Other recent entries that have likewise disappointed have been the Acies, Leipzig, Rubin, and St. Petersburg quartets.
Whatever the reason, it seems that the great interpreters of Debussy and Ravel are to be found on recordings made by ensembles of the past: the Capet (1927–28), the Calvet (1931), the Parrenin (1970), and the Galimir (1934 and 1982). Needless to say, in terms of sonic properties, only the later Galimir remake on Vanguard can compete with modern versions.
The duplicating of repertoire on closely overlapping new releases can sometimes doom one or the other. Fortunately, that is not the case here; yet the Dante Quartet’s effort cannot be considered without reference to the near simultaneous release by the Ebène Quartet on Virgin Classics, a stupendous recording that made Jens F. Laurson’s 2009 Want List, and won
Best Chamber Recording and Record of the Year award. Although as of this writing it has not yet been reviewed in these pages, I acquired the disc on my own, and referring to it in passing in a review of the Acies Quartet, I remarked that the Ebène, for the first time in my experience, resolves Debussy’s harmonic complexities in a way that makes the music sound as mellifluous as Mozart.
The Dante Quartet is ever so slightly more rough-edged (or perhaps “masculine” is the word) than the Ebène, and it is not helped by Hyperion’s recording, which is just a bit too up close and congested in the full-ensemble
passages. But where the Dante really excels, and possibly even surpasses the Ebène, is in its hyper-sensitive fine-tuning of dynamics. You will experience in the group’s playing some of the most exquisite gradations between dynamic markings you’ve ever heard. It’s as if no two
are alike. Each takes on its own nuance and special meaning within the phrase. I can almost see the players in rehearsal literally splitting hairs—i.e., discussing how many hairs of the bow should come into contact with the strings. More than once in the Ravel Quartet, I actually felt chills. Listen, for example, to the way the first violin’s tone turns almost hollow sounding as the phrase tapers off at 1:14 in the first movement. This is just one example among hundreds that make this
most expressive reading I’ve ever heard. In a side-by-side comparison, the Ebène sounds more characteristically Gallic in its less emotive, aristocratic approach; yet theirs is an extremely refined, subtly perfumed, atmospheric performance. I’d be thrown into a state of mental paralysis if I had to choose one of these recordings over the other. Fortunately, I don’t have to, because I have them both, and so should you.
Krysia Osostowicz, one-time member of the deflated geodesic dome Domus Piano Quartet, went on to found the Dante Quartet in 1995. Away from her quartet, she joins pianist Simon Carwford-Phillips on this new release in a performance of Ravel’s 1927 jazz-inspired Violin Sonata No. 2 in G. Ravel, like Tchaikovsky, thought the violin and piano to be incompatible, which leads one to wonder why he would go there a second time having already tried his hand at the medium in an 1897 sonata that was only published posthumously. I can’t say I have a favorite recording of the piece, because, to be perfectly honest about it, there’s little about the score that appeals to me. If I had to pick one that offers a generous program of violin sonatas from the Belgian-French school (Franck, Fauré, Vieuxtemps, Lekeu, and Ysaÿe, in addition to the Ravel) played in the best Belgian-French manner, it would be the one with Arthur Grumiaux on Decca Eloquence. Osostowicz is technically equipped to handle Ravel’s difficult writing, but her Catfish Row reading of the Blues movement strikes me as a bit overdone.
No matter; the sonata, for me, is a non-essential bonus for what is otherwise an award-deserving recording of Debussy’s and Ravel’s string quartets. This receives the highest recommendation possible.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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