RAVEL; DUTILLEUX; DEBUSSY String Quartets
Since the advent of CD, Dutilleux’s Ainsi la nuit has become a regular companion piece to the long-familiar pairing of the Ravel and Debussy Quartets, with the New York Quartet leading the way in 1991 and a number of ensembles, most notably, perhaps, the Arcanto Quartet, following suit over time. The three works have been central to the Hermès Quartet’s repertoire since their formation 10 years ago, though they have been hesitant about committing them to disc until now for fear, as they put it in an interview that forms the booklet notes, of ‘fixing’ their interpretations too early in their careers.
Their performances are indeed in many ways attractive. Aided by a pristine recording made in a theatre in Modena, they play with great elegance and clarity of tone, finely shaded dynamics and an admirable even-handedness of ensemble, qualities that serve them particularly well in the Ravel, where everything is poised and graceful, without losing sight of the work’s deeper resonances. There’s a beguiling lilt to the way they launch the second movement, and a deeply felt nostalgia underpins the fastidious poise of the third. Their Debussy is altogether darker in mood, with a striking muscularity at the outset and a real throb of sensuality when they reach the Andantino later on.
When they turn to Ainsi la nuit, however, their emphasis on clarity sometimes robs the work of its poetry. Dutilleux acknowledged the influence of Proustian theories of memory on the score, and Hermès Quartet are indisputably strong on its inner logic, as thematic fragments cohere, dissolve and reform themselves into melodic paragraphs across its seven movements. It’s impressive, but a bit too detached for my taste: the Arcanto Quartet’s sensitivity of expression is more persuasive here, together with the numinous quality they bring to the work as a whole. The Hermès’s disc is well worth hearing, for the Ravel above all. But the Arcanto Quartet’s Ravel and Debussy are also beautifully focused and quite outstandingly played, and their disc is to be preferred if you want all three works together.