Notes and Editorial Reviews
String Quartets: No. 1; No. 2. Introduction and Allegro for Piano and Winds. Sonatina for Flute and Clarinet
Stanislas Qrt; Stanislas Ens
TIMPANI 1C1187 (60:50)
You’ll find the Cartan family if you check your local library or online, but not as a musical lineage. They were notable in mathematics—first Élie Cartan (1869–1951), and then his eldest son, Henri (1904–2008). Louis (1909–43) was a brilliant young atomic physicist who joined the French Resistance during World War II, was captured,
deported to Germany, and murdered. Our composer Jean (1906–32) would likely have proved himself as eminent (and naturally long-lived) as Élie and Henri if he hadn’t died of complications from tuberculosis.
According to multiple accounts, Cartan announced to his family at the age of 14 his decision to become a composer, and for a wondrous change in the usual history of such matters, they accepted this. In 1924 he entered the Paris Conservatory. Three years later he joined the composition class of Charles-Marie Widor, and that of Paul Dukas the following year, when Widor retired. His friend Roussel was perhaps Cartan’s strongest influence outside of Ravel, though the latter is less evident in the Second String Quartet (1931). Whether this would have represented a shift in direction is unknown. It would be a mistake to write of a recognizable style for a composer such as this, most of whose works, though technically brilliant, derive from a talent that was still finding its way before his death. With that reservation held in mind, a few general musical observations can be made, based on this album.
First, like Ravel, there is a conscious regard in these works for classical models, as in the constantly flowing counterpoint, quasi-figured bass, and Baroque ornamentation of the First String Quartet’s slow movement. Second, textures are sparing, and clarity is everything. Cartan will sometimes introduce complexity in the movement of his voices, but only as a momentary element of contrast. It never functions as a standard part of his musical language, as it does in the late German Romantics. Third, it’s probably due to Widor and Dukas that Cartan owes his natural handling of development. There’s nothing forced about his use of traditional forms, anymore than there is about his handling of contrapuntal technique. Fourth and most importantly, Cartan expands the French neoclassical tendency to think linearly. Where Ravel has frequent recourse to chords with non-harmonic notes, and Roussel derives much color and mood from bitonality, Cartan is willing to treat his individual lines still more independently. The level of allowable dissonance can be high at times, but tonality is never in doubt, and a discernable lyricism is always present. I think Cartan is in fact a great melodist, though some may find it necessary to mentally divorce his accompaniment from the melody to perceive the latter’s beauty.
To the works themselves. The First String Quartet of 1927 is music of immense vitality, recalling Ravel most in its bookend movements, with Roussel hovering over the scherzo. The slow movement is the most original thing in the work, essentially a three-voice fugue of solemn splendor. The Introduction and Allegro for Wind Quintet and Piano (1926–30) is more conservative in the cut of its stylistic cloth, much in the vein of Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro, Roussel’s Serenade for Flute, String Trio, and Harp, and Debussy’s
Dances Sacred and Profane
. It’s fluent, though some of the wind textures aren’t idiomatic. The Sonatina was composed in 1930, and premiered to great success the following year. Its first two movements are respectively pastoral and melancholy, while its third moves between a scampering, manic theme (Scarbo on amphetamines) and one reminiscent of the second movement. It is light yet technically astute, and unfailingly inventive.
The unconventional Second String Quartet, completed in 1931, is notable throughout for its extensive use of counterpoint, right from its fugato opening. In three movements, the first is a ruminative piece of great beauty. The motoric second combines the functions of a large-scale moderato with the pacing and attitude of a scherzo. It brings to mind Roussel in its wit, though writ over a much larger and diverse canvas. The lengthy finale begins with a solemn solo recitative (soon to become a duet with the second violin) of great power. This leads to a haunting
, but the bulk of the movement is a dynamic
that launches from a tarantella-like rhythmic cell—only to return dramatically to the cello recitative and its following
two minutes before the quartet’s affecting conclusion.
The Stanislas Ensemble and Quartet were formed in 1984 from musicians working in Nancy. My reactions here mirror those I’ve had to their past releases—and to quote one of them: “The quartet performs admirably, with technical address and a strong awareness of one another’s efforts in two works that demand these qualities. My one criticism is that they are inclined on occasion to set too relaxed a pace.” The most obvious instances are the pair of scherzos from the string quartets, the first marked
vif et nerveux
, the second
allegro con fuoco
. There’s nothing nervous or fiery in either case, but an
on the slow side with good articulation and clean phrasing. This reduces both the gnomic wit of each piece and the larger ability to set a contrast to surrounding movements. That aside, I have praise for the warmth of the Stanislas’s playing, both quartet and ensemble, and its transparent textures.
It’s a shame Cartan died so young, but his musical testament shows that he’d realized at least a portion of his considerable potential. With good sound, this one’s highly recommended.
FANFARE: Barry Brenesal
Works on This Recording
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