RAVEL: String Quartet in F Major; La Tombelle: String Quartet in E Major, Op. 36 – Mandelring Quartet – Audite 97.709 (2/5/21) 57:13 [Distr. by Naxos] *****:
Recorded 11-14 October 2018, this concert brings together two French composers of contrasting temperaments, Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) and the less familiar Antoine Louis Joseph Gueyrand Fernand Fouant de La Tombelle (1854-1928). The latter’s 1895 String Quartet in E Major, in four expressive movements, has not had much currency on records. La Tombelle, one of four founders of the Schola Cantorum in France – the others: Charles Bordes, Alexandre Guilmant, and Vincent D’Indy – came to the art of music predominantly through his mother, who had studied with both Sigismund Thalberg and Franz Liszt. La Tombelle admired ancient music, specifically Gregorian chant, and he performed admirably enough at the organ to assume an assistant position at the Madeleine Cathedral in Paris. His role model in French music, César Franck, left his influence in La Tombelle’s harmony, the presence of lush counterpoint, and a preference for cyclic form.
La Tombelle’s first movement, Largo ma non troppo – Allegro has a broad canvas, reliant on the classical, Viennese model in quartet writing, but with a decidedly Gallic sound sense. The opening material, chromatically colorful, provides the germinal idea from which most of the entire work evolves. The music builds on two themes, one energized in dotted rhythm, the second a tender melody marked dolce. The relatively quick second movement, Allegro assai scherzando, projects a restless, rustic flavor, casting razor sharp chords against passing pizzicatos. We recall that among La Tombelle’s favored instruments was the hurdy-gurdy. The delicacy of the canonic sequences attests to the fine sensibilities of the Madelring’s participants.
The heart of the work, Adagio con molto espressione, emerges in the manner of a hymn, a lovely tour de force for first violin Sebastian Schmidt, whose lyrical arioso dominates the movement. The central section assumes more vitality, with triplets’ pulsating in the accompaniment. Nice colloquys develop between the players, and the sound of Bernhard Schmidt’s cello and the viola of Andreas Willwohl captures our collective love of string color. The finale, Allegro con brio, which will eventually re-introduce themes from the first two movements, opens unisono to state the main motif; but soon, each instrument goes its own way, breaking into short, pulsating riffs that want to converge and separate once more. The counterpoints prove consistently nimble and musically alert, the ensemble writing natural and idiomatic within an approachable tonal system. The Quartet in E earned its composer the Prix Chartier from the Academie des Beaux-Arts for outstanding chamber music, so perhaps it’s about time it came to us in such refined performance.
The 1903 String Quartet in F by Ravel hardly needs introduction or apology for its unique sensibilities. Modelled after the Debussy Quartet in G minor, Ravel’s work manages to depart from conventional, harmonic syntax to inject a modal eroticism into his first movement, Allegro moderato. Très doux. The various instrumental colors from the Mandelring players seem to merge and melt into a mesmeric haze, a transparent sound we haven’t heard since the Quartetto Italiano played this great work fifty years ago.
With sizzling delicacy that engrosses us in virtuosity, the second movement, Assez vif. Très rythmé, dances in penetrating pizzicati across our musical imaginations. The brisk shifts in meter, 3/4 and 6/8, in collaboration with the Aeolian coloring, might hearken to Javanese gamelan effects, which no less haunted Debussy. This music, too, has its moments of hazy sensuality, a modal sirens’ song. The muted slow movement, Très lent, lets us savor Andreas Willwohl’s viola, and we hear passing references to the first movement, even as consecutive fifths break the laws of traditional harmony. The cello adds a distinctive color to the closing pages, which end in the distant key of G-flat. The last movement, Vif et agité, opens tumultuously; and the two warring affects, motoric and elegant, respectively, collide only to reconcile later in the tones of the opening movement, the coda enriched and ennobled to a radiant, last triad in the home key of F. This recording comes heartily recommended to lovers of French chamber music.
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