FAURÉ Quintets with Piano Op 89; Op 115
Eric Le Sage continues his Fauré exploration (I much liked the piano quartets – 10/12) with the two quintets. Both are late masterpieces, the Second the more approachable of the two, while the First stands on the cusp of middle and late and abounds in constantly shifting tonal centres and melodies that seem to slip, ungraspably, through your fingers. This is the most fragile of musical discourses, so easily wounded if the performers aren’t completely at one with the idiom. In that respect, the Ebène Quartet are, of course, past masters. In fact, this recording was made just weeks after their contributions to Virgin’s Fauré box (with two different pianists: Michel Dalberto in No 1 and Nicholas Angelich in No 2). That was one of the more successful discs in a distinctly mixed bag that was on the whole compromised by the recording quality.
Comparison is fascinating. Unsurprisingly, the performances don’t differ markedly in terms of tempo or interpretation, but the devil’s in the detail, and this is where this set wins out time and again. The most obvious plus is that the recording itself has more clarity and you’re more aware of the individual string players, a particular delight in the case of this fab four.
The opening of the Second Quintet’s Allegro vivo is more withdrawn than elsewhere, without compromising on its thrilling momentum. And the slow movement comes off better, too, largely because the pianist is more integrated into the texture; in solemnity they give the London Bridge Ensemble a run for their money. Le Sage offers consistently limpid playing, so unmistakably French, whether in the many passages of virtuoso writing – sample the way he sets the scene in the opening movement of No 1 – or in the bell-like pealing of the finale of the same work. Everywhere the pacing sounds utterly natural: Le Sage and the Ebène are the most persuasive guides through sometimes daunting terrain. This is a clear front-runner in this repertoire.