Dutilleux • Stephen Hough • Ravel
Stephen Hough: String Quartet No. 1, ‘Les Six recontres’; Dutilleux: String Quartet, ‘Ainsi la nuit’; Ravel: String Quartet
Hyperion CDA68400 67:48 mins
This recording really is a joy from start to finish. In the Ravel, the very first bars are played not with emphasis but piano, as indicated: we feel at once that we’re being let in on an important secret, not fit for philistine ears, a secret enhanced by the modernist Ravel’s surprise bass line of a simple major scale. From here on the Takács Quartet are alive to every inflection in Ravel’s meticulously marked score, so that we live the journeys of each movement with them. In particular, they bring out the dangerous quality in many of his crescendos – performers, he complained, tended to start them too soon, so flattening their impact.
As for virtuosity, Dutilleux’s Quartet (a work he was especially proud of) needs this in spades, but also a keen ear for balance between the four instruments. One influence behind the work, together with Beethoven, Bartók and Webern, was Proust and his ideas about memory: a key factor is balance in another sense, not vertical but horizontal, namely the relevant weight to be accorded to the multiple reminiscences of short phrases.
The ‘surprise’ item is Stephen Hough’s First String Quartet. In six short movements, it harks back to Les Six whose music, says Hough, ‘evokes a flavour rather than a style’, namely ‘the rough and tumble of daily human life’. What he calls ‘Stravinskyan spikes’, both rhythmic and harmonic, lace textures that are complex but never abstruse or overbearing, often utterly delightful, in a language that references tonality obliquely. Above all, Hough’s is an unmistakably individual and convincing voice.