DEBUSSY String Quartet in g. SAINT-SAËNS String Quartet No. 1. RAVEL String Quartet in F • Modigliani Qrt • MIRARE 188 (2 CDs: 85:00)
The three works on this release date from the 10-year period 1893-1903. From the LP era through the present, it has been the prevailing practice to couple the Debussy and Ravel quartets on a single disc, sometimes with the addition of short piecesRead more to fill up the remaining space on a CD. For example, the Alban Berg Quartet (EMI) adds three brief Stravinsky pieces, while Testament’s reissue of 1960 recordings by the Juilliard Quartet adds two works by Webern, who can be counted upon to be brief. This release by the Modigliani Quartet takes a different tack, throwing the full-length Saint-Saëns Quartet No. 1 into the mix and placing the Ravel work by itself on a second disc, with a duration of 28: 25. If treated as a full-price two-disc set, this release would be an economically uninviting proposition. As I write this review, ArkivMusic is showing a list price of $49.98 for the set but has it on sale for less than one-third that amount, $15.99. At that price, given the excellence of the performances, it would be a worthwhile acquisition. Still, it’s hard to understand why another French quartet could not have been found to occupy some of the 50-plus minutes of empty space on the second disc. Those of Fauré or Chausson would have been suitable choices, but another by Saint-Saëns or one by Roussel, among others, could also have been used.
The chronically underrated Saint-Saëns was responsible for some fine chamber music. The first of his two string quartets is a fairly late work, completed in 1899, six years after the one and only quartet by the much younger Debussy, and is predictably written in a much more eclectic and cosmopolitan style than Debussy’s and Ravel’s very individual contributions to the genre. It is dedicated to the Belgian violinist and composer Eugène Ysaÿe, and many commentators have noted that the first-violin part appears intended for a player of great virtuosity. The work has received a mixed press in previous Fanfare reviews. According to Robert McColley (21:6), it is “in subtlety and complexity of musical and spiritual depth… perhaps as close to the masterworks of late Beethoven as anything written since.” At the opposite extreme, Jerry Dubins (35:1 and 36:5) declared the piece “much ado about very little, a tornado in a thimble.” In between is Adrian Corleonis (21:4), for whom this quartet is “serious, polished, and engaging without striking very deeply.” Ian Lace (21:5) also offered a mildly positive assessment. I certainly wouldn’t go as far as McColley but disagree completely with Dubins’s harsh assessment. Contrary to Corleonis, I would say that the work has considerable depth of feeling as well as melodic invention, although admittedly there are pages that seem more learned than inspired. I agree with Lace that the first movement is “virile and melodically and harmonically arresting.” The ensuing scherzo, beginning with a seemingly simple motif, builds to impressive textural complexity and emotional intensity. The slow movement is rather chilling and enigmatic, while the rondo finale builds to a fiery conclusion. I have a perfectly capable performance by the Switzerland-based Sarastro Quartet, on the Pan Classics label, but the playing of the Modigliani Quartet is more nuanced, fiery, and spontaneous, generates surging waves of sound, and makes a better case for the work. I haven’t heard any of the recordings previously reviewed in Fanfare, which met with varying degrees of approval, but several are still available.
For the Debussy and Ravel works, of course, the range of alternatives is much more extensive, but the Modigliani performances are very fine ones, with playing that is technically faultless, fluid, flexible, tonally sumptuous, subtly expressive, or brilliantly impassioned as needed, and in the Ravel, filled with mystery. These vivid performances are not surpassed by any others in my collection, which in addition to those already mentioned includes recordings by the Cleveland (Telarc), Petersen (Capriccio), Ysaÿe (Decca and Wigmore Hall Live), Rosamonde (Pierre Verany), and Borodin (BBC) quartets and Quartetto Italiano (EMI). Is the Modigliani players’ approach perhaps a quintessentially French one? The ensembles whose performances theirs most resemble in fluidity, flexibility, and refined sensuousness, the Ysaÿe and Rosamonde, are also French, while the strongest contrast is with the angular and metrical approach of the Alban Berg and especially the Juilliard, in both works, and the Petersen in the Ravel.
Mirare has given this release vivid, spacious, wide-ranging, detailed sound, with well-defined instrumental timbres, surpassing, in these respects, most of the other recordings cited for comparison. A faint tapping noise can be heard briefly in the first movement of the Debussy.
This release is strongly recommended, provided one can get it for a reasonable price.
Very Good performannce, but I prefare the JerusalSeptember 10, 2013By Reuven Holzer (Herzlia, Israel)See All My Reviews"Very Good performance, but I prefer the Jerusalem String Quartet (which I heard live). They played the Debussy Quartet and Ravel in two different concerts. I still love this performance very much. However I miss the passion ,the playfulness and the sense of "yearning for something unknown" in the JSQ live performance I heard (which I like very much as I mentioned earlier). Modigliani quartet, however, exhibit a perfect technique. They do it with a lot of grace and it is obvious that they are very articulate and know-how. The bottom line : I like this performance very much, however, if JSQ will do a recording of Debussy and or Ravel I will purchase their one too....."Report Abuse
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