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20th Century String Quartets - Debussy, Ravel, Toldra & Zemlinsky / Cuarteto Casals

Debussy / Ravel / Toldra / Cuarteto Casals
Release Date: 07/10/2012 
Label:  Harmonia Mundi   Catalog #: 508390  
Composer:  Maurice RavelEduardo ToldráJoaquin TurinaClaude Debussy,   ... 
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Casals String Quartet
Number of Discs: 2 
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CD:  $17.99
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Cuarteto Casals has previously recorded the Ravel’s usual discmate—the String Quartet by Debussy—and paired it with Zemlinsky’s Quartet No. 2. Here, in an equally imaginative coupling, they link Ravel (who came from a Basque background) with two nationalistic Spanish composers. To underline the relationship, they have entitled this CD “Influencias,” and it is indeed possible to hear Ravel’s influence on the companion works, which were written approximately 20 years later, most notably in their impressionistic textures.

Eduard Toldrà was a renowned violinist and conductor, and himself the founder of a string quartet. His short suite of tone poems, Read more style="font-style:italic">Vistes al mar , takes its inspiration from three evocative verses about the sea, selected from a longer poem, The Weaver by Joan Maragall. Together these pieces, in a fast-slow-fast format, create a satisfyingly rounded work, albeit a brief one. The bustling activity described in the first poem is immediately captured in Toldrà’s ardent, tuneful music, while the gentler second piece is suffused with warmth. The finale bustles joyfully once again. In this recording, the poetry is recited prior to each of the vistes , presumably by a member of the Quartet, although the speaker’s name is nowhere to be found. This rather detracts from the cohesiveness of the work as a whole, but as the poems are on separate tracks they may be programmed out if so desired.

Turina’s Oración del torero of 1925 (sometimes translated as The Bullfighter’s Prayer ) is a single movement in the form of a pasodoble . A comparatively popular work, it has been recorded many times, mainly in its guise for string orchestra. The Toldrà suite was also subsequently orchestrated by its composer, and has been recorded in that form. The only performance I have at hand is a rather rustic version with Gerard Claret conducting the Orquestra Nacional de Cambra d’Andorra on Nimbus, and I’m afraid the sharpness and sensitivity of Cuarteto Casals leave the larger forces for dead.

The Casals members constitute a remarkable quartet. (Personnel are: Abel Tomàs Realp, Vera Martinez Mehner, violins; Jonathan Brown, viola; Arnau Tomàs Realp, cello.) Abel’s violin is sweet and never dominates unduly, while Arnau produces a rich, honeyed cello tone. Most important, these four musicians play as one: dynamic shadings, subtle gradations of tempo, and thematic emphases are carefully worked out and superbly controlled. They are not afraid to dig into the strings, as in the raw-toned sections of the Turina (you can almost see the red earth beneath the toreador’s feet!), nor do they shy away from a heart-on-sleeve approach when that seems called for. They take the lovely coda of the first movement of Ravel’s Quartet much more broadly than the same melody’s previous statements—more broadly than I have ever heard it, in fact—but it works. Their spontaneous, moment-by-moment way with the Ravel pays dividends by making the last movement feel less episodic in comparison to the rest: a trait that some commentators, such as David Drew, regard as the work’s sole weakness.

As far as comparisons are concerned, there is (of course) no other disc with this particular coupling. Two recent recordings of the Ravel have garnered high praise in these pages: the Leipzig Quartet, interestingly coupled with quartets by Tailleferre and Milhaud, and the Belcea Quartet, who pair it with the Debussy and Ainsi la nuit by Dutilleux. I don’t know those versions, but the Belcea Quartet is a skilled, highly responsive group, to judge from their other recordings. A strong and tonally rich performance may be found on an EMI “Great Recordings of the Century” issue featuring the Alban Berg Quartet—the Scherzo is especially forceful—coupled with a fine Debussy and idiomatic readings of Stravinsky’s string quartet oeuvre. Although I am fond of an old DG recording by the Melos Quartet, its interpretation is by no means as detailed or as pliable as that of the Casals; the mellow Melos is more at home with Debussy.

Cuarteto Casals also trumps the competition in Oración del torero : namely, an out-of-print Britten Quartet performance on the defunct Collins Classics label. However, the Orpheus CO is convincingly pointed in its 1991 recording of the orchestral arrangement: part of a superb collection of short pieces that is well worth tracking down.

To sum up: at 53:12 (that is, minus the recitations), the new release is short measure for a CD but its rewards are ample. Certainly, it contains my favorite performance of the Ravel Quartet (at the moment!) while the Spanish works are scintillating and delightful. I intend to search out the Casals’s recording of the Arriaga quartets as soon as possible. This issue is a great success.

FANFARE: Phillip Scott


"Debussy’s Quartet has retained its vitality and freshness through uncounted performances and recordings. Cuarteto Casals was founded in Madrid in 1997 and has appeared throughout the Western world, maintaining its home as quartet-in-residence for several Spanish conservatories. The group is technically solid, with a soft first violin and a lovely pure cello; individual lines emerge subtly from a warm ensemble. It plays with convincing ardor and a freshness that matches Debussy to a tee...

To segue from Debusy to Zemlinsky is less wrenching than one might imagine. The Viennese composer is expanding formal and tonal boundaries, whereas the Frenchman was breaking the mold and starting anew, but they shared a genius for color that extended to their chamber music. While the Casals remained cool and fresh in Debussy, it rises to a white-hot intensity in Zemlinsky, bringing the Second Quartet close to the compositions of Alban Berg. Zemlinsky was leaning towards the dissolution of tonal harmony here, a break that he was never able to make. Nevertheless, his struggles in that direction lead to a power of expression in which the Casals ensemble revels. In addition, it floats exquisite pianissimos in the finale.

Zemlinsky’s quartets continue to grow in stature as each new recording reveals another way of looking at his music. Among its best previous recordings, the Second Quartet has benefited from the icy analysis of the LaSalle, the iron will of the Artis, and the friendly warmth of the Schoenberg Quartet. That it blossoms under such variety of care suggests a fundamental quality that could not stay buried by Hitler’s banishment. Zemlinsky has proven to be the most wide-ranging composer among those so suppressed; much of his chamber and symphonic music, his songs and his operas, have joined the standard repertoire in Europe, while America recycles only the most familiar music, becoming more and more of a cultural backwater. The emergence of Cuarteto Casals is yet another sign of the vitality of European culture.

...recorded sound is full and ripe, intimate yet never claustrophobic. Recording sessions took place in Girona—in Basque country, right on the French border—in the summer of 2004."

James H. North, FANFARE
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Works on This Recording

Quartet for Strings in F major by Maurice Ravel
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Casals String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1902-1903; France 
Vistas al mar by Eduardo Toldrá
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Casals String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1920; Spain 
La oración del torero, Op. 34 by Joaquin Turina
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Casals String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1925; Spain 
Quartet for Strings in G minor, Op. 10 by Claude Debussy
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Casals String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1893; France 
Quartet for Strings no 2, Op. 15 by Alexander von Zemlinsky
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Casals String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1914; Prague, Czech Republ 

Customer Reviews

Average Customer Review:  1 Customer Review )
 Beautiful on so many levels August 10, 2012 By Brian Leatherman (AURORA, CO) See All My Reviews "With a title like that, why do I give it 4 stars? Only because it does not displace my mainstays: Quartetto Italiano (warmth and vigor), Quatuor Ebene (élan and panache), and Julliard (intensity.. Also, I don't particularly care for the Zemlinsky. However, these are wonderful performances adn teh Toldra and Turina pieces are well worth knowing. Therefore, I consider this disc a very fine value. For a first recording of the "twins" it is well worth considering. What is beyond 4 stars, like 6 or 7, is the packaging, the program notes and the generally sumptuous feel of the entire production. If you like the "twins" I hope you check some of the other recommended recordings. Who knows? You may like the Zemlinsky better than I do!" Report Abuse
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