DEBUSSY: Quartet in g, Op. 10; DUTILLEUX: Quartet, “Ainsi la nuit”; RAVEL: Quartet in F – Arcanto Quartet – Harmonia mundi 902067, 71:19 ****:
The Arcanto Quartet is a very new group, existing only since about 2002. As such they show a remarkable unanimity of style, putting together a warhorse program that as of late has seen the more frequent addition of the Quartet by Dutilleux.
For those who don’t know him, Henri Dutilleux (b. 1916) is a French composer who very much takes his stylistic conformities from the Debussy/Ravel tandem, though what he does with it very much surpasses his masters and can hardly avoid influences like that of Bartok and Stravinsky, as well as flirtatious adventures with aspects of serialism–but he has been critical of that school. His music is extremely modal and even atonal; though I am not sure that appellation is one that fits as well as some might hope.
What I mean by this is that Dutilleux’s predilection for atonalism defies categorization; the subtle harmonies and gossamer textures of his music take us into a world where such labels become unnecessary. We don’t walk away from his music thinking “man what an atonal piece that was” because of the way that he manipulates melody, and especially harmonies, integrated into a whole that is consistent and structured. Those who don’t know him very much need to make his acquaintance post-haste. This performance by the Arcanto is a good place to start, the best performance on the disc, completely attuned to the composer’s “night visions”.
There is much more competition for the other two quartets here. The Ravel, one of the supreme classical examples of the composer’s work, has received fine performances by another Harmonia mundi quartet, the Casals. Even better is a smoking performance by the Alexander Quartet on Foghorn—while the Arcanto is very good, that one is transcendent. The Debussy’s inherent romanticism is played down somewhat in this reading, certainly a valid take on the work even though I think it shortchanges the piece’s origins. Nevertheless I could live happily with this reading, though the Quartteto Italiano’s Philips reading will continue to haunt me. The sound is excellent on this recording, and as collections with these three readings—a natural compendium—this will be hard to beat.
— Steven Ritter