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Debussy & Ravel: String Quartets / Borodin Quartet

Ravel / Debussy / Borodin Quartet
Release Date: 10/09/2012 
Label:  Melodiya   Catalog #: 1001973   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Claude DebussyMaurice Ravel
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Borodin String Quartet
Number of Discs: 1 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

RAVEL String Quartet in F. DEBUSSY String Quartet in g Borodin Qrt MELODIYA MELCD1001973 (54:56)

I reviewed this recording a decade ago ( Fanfare 26:1) when it was issued on Chandos 9980. As that album is still available, I’m left wondering why Melodiya, a label with only moderate distribution, would want to go up with a rerelease of something already in Chandos’s active catalog. Sonically, there’s next Read more to nothing to choose between them. The Chandos is reproduced at a slightly higher volume in the Debussy, but otherwise there isn’t any significant difference. The Ravel still suffers from miking that’s a touch too distant, an issue corrected in the Debussy. Pricewise, they are competitive.

My reactions to the performances themselves haven’t substantially changed since then, but there are differences. So with a respectful nod of the head to the French film director René Clair, whose book of essays “Cinema Yesterday and Today” employs a layered approach of roughly 50 years starting with his original essays, later comments on them, and still later comments looking back on those as well, I’ll juxtapose a few of my first thoughts in these pages with my current ones.

2002: “The Borodins did not offer traditional French chamber-playing with its subtle emphasis on higher timbres and linear textures (the International, Calvet and Capet Quartets). Their style was vertically-oriented and rich in harmony, with a typically denser “weight” to textures and a rich, romantic sheen like finely-aged wood.”

2012: Strange analogy to one side, I still think the point is an accurate one. However, today I’d emphasize the Borodin Quartet’s exquisite balance between the four parts rather than vertical versus horizontal. All other merits to one side, for sheer beauty they are only matched, and have never been beaten, not even by the rich harmonies of the legendary Léner Quartet.

2002: “But the Borodin players were experts in the refinement of ensemble through bowing and dynamics, qualities that stand them in good stead with Debussy and Ravel. The scherzo to the latter’s quartet exemplifies the Borodin approach to this music: a bit slower than most Western European and American groups, with a transparent, sec beauty anchored in Berlinsky’s dark cello.”

2012: They’re more than a bit slower, especially in the scherzo to the Ravel, which never takes wing despite great transparency. But the Borodin’s attention to phrasing, as I wrote back then, was their hallmark at a time when many similar ensembles were eschewing much of this in favor of an approach that was not only interpretatively cooler, but also simpler. There’s a tradition present on this disc, but it isn’t a tradition founded on great tension, very narrow vibrato, fleet tempos, or rhythmically propulsive playing such as French performers of an earlier day supplied.

2002: “The liner notes focus on the two quartets, with very little mention of the performers—nor are we given the recording dates. (I suspect this pair date from the late 1960s.) This kind of historical material can only benefit from that information.”

2012: The Melodiya liner notes are sadly similar, except that they do include a very short couple of generalized paragraphs on the Borodins. Plus, they point to a few critical notices at the time of the works’ premieres, stating that both Debussy and Ravel owed a great debt to the Russians for their thematic shapes, harmonic progressions, and handling of strings.

There you have it. The choice is yours. In any case, this is an album well worth having.

FANFARE: Barry Brenesal
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Works on This Recording

Quartet for Strings in G minor, Op. 10 by Claude Debussy
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Borodin String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1893; France 
Quartet for Strings in F major by Maurice Ravel
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Borodin String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1902-1903; France 

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