Debussy • Ravel
Debussy: String Quartet in G minor; Ravel: String Quartet in F major
Harmonia Mundi HMM 902304 53:38 mins
In advance, I wondered whether there was anything new to be said about these two incessantly recorded works. Happily the answer is ‘yes’. Nor is it due to anything imposed – the novelty comes quite simply from doing what it says on the tin. From the point of view of colour, the ensemble is notable for its warmth and richness, but also for a willingness to drop to the most intimate levels of pianissimo. As a result we are given a dramatic reading of both works: not wayward or hysterical, but one that casts serious doubt on their character as ‘impressionist’ in the usual understanding of that term.
Towards the end of his life, Ravel made a distinction between the harmonic underpinning of Debussy’s Quartet and the contrapuntal one of his own, and the very opening of the Debussy here makes this point in spades. This Quartet ‘in G minor’ knocks bourgeois expectations flying by leaving that key as early as the second chord, and this performance continues to emphasise the work’s strength and individuality. In the Ravel they relish the sudden crescendo bursts that the composer used to complain were routinely ignored, but at the same time honour the compensating passages of calm reflection – not least the very opening of the work where they steal in magically from silence, très doux as marked, as if underlining the extraordinary effect Ravel achieves in his harmonies over the cello playing just an F major scale. Altogether this disc is a superb combination of intelligence, honesty, taste and technique – one of my top two of the year so far.