Notes and Editorial Reviews
First, a few words of background material. Lucien Capet (1873–1928) was a celebrated violin soloist, chamber music performer, and pedagogue. He formed and led four string quartets over several decades, and was in the midst of a recording series with the last of these when he suddenly died.
Capet was known as a man of strong opinions, and one used to getting his way. Gabriel Fauré had great respect for his abilities as a performer, and worked with both the violinist and his quartet on occasion. However, he wrote in private letters complaining about the intriguing and “dirty dealing” Capet applied while trying to push his own ideas into the Paris Conservatoire over those of Fauré (who was its director). Among
other actions, the Capet faction petitioned the government to have the great Sarah Bernhardt appointed a professor of drama, while she in turn wrote to newspapers that the Conservatoire should be “directed by a theater director or a retired actor.”
Capet was also an iconoclastic expert on bowing. He subjected it to an exhaustive intensity of analysis, and published his findings in Superior Bowing Technique (currently available in English from Encore Music Publishers). One consequence of this career-long obsession with bowing was that his quartets featured a very lean vibrato at a time when such a thing was practically unknown. In fact, Yehudi Menuhin recalled seeing the fourth Capet Quartet as a 10-year-old prodigy, and left the hall because of what he then termed the group’s vibratoless sound. In all likelihood, the Capets simply used far less vibrato than Menuhin then found comfortable. There’s certainly vibrato in these recordings from 1928, though as the central section of Ravel’s scherzo movement demonstrates, it is usually very light. It appears as well that the ensemble varied vibrato according to the interpretative needs of the moment, treating it in the same way that most chamber groups traditionally regard accenting, dynamics, tempo, etc. This presumably relied upon Capet’s ability to simulate vibrato through bowing, permitting a greater degree of control over the pulsing of the tone.
Greater than normal variety of vibrato is certainly present in all three of these 1928 recordings. Even the age of these early electric shellacs can’t erase the range of color achieved in these works. The short section at the center of Ravel’s slow movement, reprising the first movement’s main theme, is taken deliberately and softly, with a gray, veiled tone. Or again, there’s the febrile intensity of the soaring viola line later in the same tres lent; or the full but delicately shaded string orchestra sound of the Schumann finale; or the dark richness that leads off his slow movement. (The portamentos that seem out of place elsewhere come briefly into their own, here.) It can be argued that all of these moments and too many others to name have been successfully captured before, though I have my doubts in at least a couple of instances. I can’t recall, in any case, another single recording that managed to find these colors (and so many additional ones) at the same time, or brought them out with such discriminating taste.
The reverse side of this narrow vibrato is, of course, that the performers risk revealing elements of faulty technique, momentary or habitual, that might otherwise escape notice, such as poor intonation, glancing notes off the edge of the bow, and brief lapses of ensemble. There are very few instances of the first and none of the others, at least that I can hear. The Capets were all virtuosos on their respective instruments, but they must have practiced ruthlessly to achieve this kind of precision, both individually and together. I can’t claim that these recordings are among the easiest on the ear, even for their vintage. The Pro Arte and Lener recordings of comparable age possess more presence, though at least some of the latter’s appeal may be due to the way the recording apparatus caught their beautifully “fat” sound. (I expect that if the original Talich and Borodin Quartets were recorded back in the late 1920s, the former would sonically suffer when compared with the latter, too.) But there are times in these recordings when the Capet Quartet’s ability to define a phrase on the narrowest or softest of tonal threads makes all the sonic deficiencies vanish.
While the Capets were known for their exceptional performances of the Beethoven quartet cycle, they were also considered experts in the French repertoire, and consulted repeatedly on interpretative matters with Debussy and Ravel. Theirs is among the slowest and most meditative of slow movements in the former’s Quartet, but elsewhere, the differences are more a matter of increased exploration of detail without loss of either momentum or architecture. Their Schumann is rather more Mendelssohnian than is the current fashion, but no less insightful for that, with the main attraction—the Scherzo’s main section going at a dizzying pace that never loses articulation—simply a delightful tour de force.
Opus Kura notes that although digital noise reduction “is a most remarkable technique . . . recent transferred CDs sometimes have poor sound, often being thin and metallic.” They employ very little noise reduction, rather less than does Ward Marston in his out-of-print transfers for Biddulph. The result is a tradeoff, where Marston had less noisy surfaces but a hazier sound, while the current release has great definition at the expense of more surface hiss, rumble, and a wirier string tone. Personally, I’ll take the increased music and noise dug out of those grooves, but you may feel otherwise.
In short, highly recommended, if you can bear the vintage sound.
FANFARE: Barry Brenesal
Works on This Recording
Quartet for Strings in F major by Maurice Ravel
Capet String Quartet
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1902-1903; France
Date of Recording: 1928
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