DEBUSSY; RAVEL; TAILLEFERRE String Quartets (Stenhammar Quartet)
Like Debussy and Ravel, Germaine Tailleferre wrote only one string quartet. It began life in 1917 as a Sonatine for strings but only reached its definitive form two years later, by which time Sonatine had been dropped from the title. It’s a startling work in many ways though not, I think, a masterpiece. The opening is very svelte, as a cool, neoclassical Modéré gives way to an almost balletic Intermède, more waltz than scherzo, which has been described as ‘Ravellian’, though the brief, uneasy trio at its centre owes more, perhaps, to the corresponding passage in Debussy’s Quartet than to Ravel’s own. The initial elegance, however, is brutally swept away in the ferocious saltarello finale, roughly the length of the first two movements put together, and a thing of violent syncopations, slashing sforzandos and garish polytonal clashes. The jolt is deliberate, and Tailleferre is clearly playing fast and loose with preconceptions of stylistic and emotional consistency. The downside, however, is a sense that you’re listening to a sequence of disparate pieces, tenuously connected, rather than a work with a unified purpose.
Placing it alongside the Debussy and Ravel Quartets, however, the excellent Stenhammar Quartet have unquestionably done it proud. There’s real lyrical warmth at the start of the Modéré, as its themes are shuttled from instrument to instrument, and the Intermède is utterly enchanting in its grace and lightness of touch, before the brief incursion into darkness of the trio. The finale, in contrast, is thrilling stuff. Rhythms are exactingly precise, played with both precision and virtuoso prowess. Whatever you think of the piece, you can’t fault the performance.
The Debussy and Ravel Quartets are superbly done here, too. The richness of the Stenhammars’ tone is most beautiful in the Debussy, and their interpretation has some of the sensuality of the Jerusalem Quartet’s recent recording (Harmonia Mundi, 7/18), though the mood is more reflective and introverted throughout, less heady in the Andantino, which breathes a sense of refined tristesse and regret here, rather than intense yearning. The Ravel, meanwhile, is at once strikingly direct in expression and played with fastidious attention to detail. The opening Allegro really is très doux and the finally very agité and fierce. The scherzo’s trio sounds almost stark amid the surrounding swagger, while unease seems to hover continuously just below the slow movement’s surface nostalgia. The recording itself is very immediate and finely balanced, though close microphone placings capture occasional intakes of breath from the players.