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COMPOSERS: Debussy/Ravel/Webern
WORKS: String Quartet in G minor; String Quartet in F; String Quartet
PERFORMER: Hagen Quartet
With a well-tried coupling it’s good to have a few surprises in the supporting works. Performances, as might be expected, are at the highest level. From the Juilliard, sturdy and full-toned playing has the edge in spaciousness and overt emotion, and in a springy dance character for the Ravel Scherzo and finale. None of the groups is very Latin in temperament, but the Hagen is more delicate and impulsive, catching the ‘Russian’ feeling in Debussy’s slow movement and the fine lines and childlike interjections in Ravel’s. The group’s brighter sound is offset by a less close-up recording.


Webern turns out to be the decider. This is a 1905 piece, ultra-Romantic, like Wagner in miniature as it grows restless from a broad, euphonious start, and at last visionary. For listeners who love Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht in spite of his later music, this will be an exact parallel. Henri Dutilleux’s music is more elusive, but as fascinating and sensuous as ever. Beautifully composed and colourfully scored – the range of imagination overlaps orchestral and electronic music – its fleeting perceptions enchant the ear and awaken appetites that the substance gratifies.


Just to complicate things, the best Debussy option forms part of a collector’s starter pack for the 20th-century mainstream. The Vogler, mellower and more sensuous, allows pace and passion to ebb and flow freely without hyping up the tension. Janácek’s ‘Kreutzer Sonata’ Quartet becomes big and intense, with fierce interjections, while for Shostakovich – this is the one in seven miniature movements – bear-like energy outflanks otherworldly withdrawal. Robert Maycock