The Debussy String Quartet looks a little lonely on this new disc without the usual Ravel quartet next to it or the Fauré String Quartet that increasingly completes the triptych of French works that changed the medium. Ah, but there were other important voices, say the Galatea Quartet, the Swiss group that follows up its enterprising disc of Ernst Bloch (2/12) with a collection that puts Debussy next to Milhaud and Menu for a change, and in ways that make you appreciate Debussy all the more.
All of them followed the 1893 Debussy quartet and clearly play off of it, showing just how many different elements one could draw from, whether thematically or harmonically. But it’s Debussy’s way of writing four hugely different movements that feel like they belong together (and have certain thematic links) that Milhaud seized upon in the first of his 18 quartets, written in 1912, that intriguingly seems to begin in mid-sentence and goes on to be an extremely attractive, thoughtfully argued work. Besides that, the third and best of Milhaud’s movements is influenced by the dark but quiet realms of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande: it can seem thematically weak on first hearing but turns out to be subtle and deeply insinuating upon return visits.
The Sonatine by Pierre Menu requires explanation. This student of Roger-Ducassse died in 1919 at the age of 23, a victim of the First World War, and is discussed (when at all) as a great French might-have-been along with Lili Boulanger. Though slight, the Sonatine is quite worthwhile, though the inevitable descriptions of it – a promising composer whose work sounds like Debussy’s outtakes – shouldn’t be mistaken for faint praise. If ever a piece leaves you wanting more, it’s the Debussy Quartet. And here we have it.
The Galatea Quartet’s command of their instruments gives the performances extra distinction: though not a group to indulge in a lot of colour, they give Debussy just enough intellectual rigour, the third movement marked by air-tight chord tunings with minimum vibrato that few quartets can deliver at most any register and volume, and do so in ways that reveal even greater depths in the music. The Milhaud performance has a sense of continuity that eludes the more prosaic Quatuor Parisii while also entering the music’s nature imagery in ways that make the piece a forest of sound. As for the Menu, one has little comparison. This Sonatine performance appears to be the only work of his currently available on disc.