DEBUSSY; RAVEL Quartets (Jerusalem Quartet)
‘Don’t forget that my String Quartet was already conceived as four-part counterpoint, whereas Debussy’s Quartet is purely harmonic in design’, Ravel stated in an interview in 1931, carefully pinpointing the differences between two works which, rightly or wrongly, have come to be regarded as companion pieces. In the Jerusalem Quartet’s new recording, issued as part of Harmonia Mundi’s Debussy centenary series, they seem poles apart in style and mood. The aim of the series is ‘to reread these scores, providing a new view of the works concerned’, and the Jerusalem Quartet’s Debussy is unquestionably challenging.
It’s a strikingly intense performance, grand in scale, emotionally heated and dark in tone: Debussy’s repeated instruction avec passion in the final movement could easily apply to the interpretation as a whole. It’s by no means wild, and in many ways is exceptionally faithful to the score. The opening statement really is très décidé, as if ushering in the determined search for a new musical language that follows. Un peu retenu, later on, indicates a relaxation of momentum rather than a radical gear change, while doucement expressif is an entirely apt description of the slow movement.
Yet at the same time, the richness and weight of the Jerusalem Quartet’s sound spreads a pall of sensuality over the whole work, and the sweep and urgency of the phrasing create a heady immediacy throughout. We’re very much in the world of Pelléas or L’après-midi d’un faune, and reminded more than once that Debussy had, as yet, not quite rid himself of Wagner’s influence. Place it beside the Melos Quartet’s performance, considered the benchmark by many, and the latter seems restrained, albeit more intimate, in comparison. Which you prefer is ultimately a matter of taste, but the new recording is utterly compelling.
Turning to the Ravel, the contrast comes almost as a jolt. Turbulent sensuality gives way to sensuous refinement as the dark string sound perceptibly brightens. Ravel’s Classicism is very much to the fore, though we’re also very aware of the troubling emotions that constantly threaten its surface. Where Debussy’s Scherzo preens and swaggers, Ravel’s is witty and playful until the yearning central section stops it in its tracks. There’s a sparseness to the slow movement that suggests unease rather than the more usual nostalgia, and the agité finale begins angrily before recovering its poise. It’s a fine performance, beautifully articulated and superbly played, but ultimately it’s the Debussy that is the disc’s raison d’être. It’s quite remarkable: do listen to it.