RAVEL: String Quartet in F Major; DEBUSSY: String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 10 – Budapest String Quartet (J. Roisman/A. Schneider/B. Kroyt/M. Schneider)
Pristine Audio PACM065, 54:11 [www.pristineclassical.com] (Download or CD-R) ****:
Recorded 8 September 1940 (Ravel) and 10-12 December 1940 (Debussy), this pairing of French masters by the illustrious Budapest String Quartet has existed in every recorded medium: as 78 rpms; as a Columbia LP (ML 4668); and now, as a CD incarnation remastered by Andrew Rose. The hard, abrasive sound patina of the “Americanized” version of the Budapest Quartet functions to secure a driven, sculpted version of the Ravel F Major Quartet, which insists on clear, pointed lines, even as the melodic flow likes to melt the distinctive colors and timbres into each other. The other-worldly quality of the Assez vif second movement suggests various sorts of oriental possibilities, with Mischa Schneider’s cello beating out a ferocious tattoo over which his colleagues pluck their strings with ringing ferocity. Then the instruments slide and glide into a liquefied world, a Dali-esque vision of Freudian time. The first and third movements each communicates a modal intimacy, a slightly askew reality directed by geometrically strict lines, perhaps a musical equivalent of Mondrian or Chirico. The Tres lent third movement possesses a shimmering touch of Gauguin as well, dramatic gestures buried in plantain leaves. The last movement, Vif et anime, blisters the ear with its feverish, hectic urgency, its relentless pace and jarring interruptions against the downbeat. The opening motif from the first movement undergoes perpetual transformation, Liszt taken into the subjective, rarified world of chamber music, wonderfully fleshed out in this scintillating rendition.
Debussy’s only (official) string quartet, his only numbered opus, occupies a special place in virtually every musician‘s ethos: my old teacher, Jean Casadesus, insisted that its Andantino third movement accompany his funeral. The Budapest again bring a hard, bright patina to this music, establishing a model, perhaps, for their equally driven colleagues of Quartetto Italiano. Roisman’s leading violin and Kroyt’s active viola dominate the first movement, with Schneider’s deep-intoned cello ever-present underneath a mosaic of twisting, Byzantine weavings of melodic tissue. The entire corpus of sound softens magically in the last pages, rife with Wagnerian possibilities. The second movement must have been in Bartok’s mind every day of his life, along with late Beethoven quartets. Half serenade and half grotesquerie, the movement swirls with dash and hothouse vigor. The heart of the quartet, aforementioned Andantino, doucement expressif, floats in a pool of rarified light, cool, distant as a star in Alpha Centauri. The sweet viola melody evokes hints of the English countryside; we might think Vaughan Williams penned it. The texture thins out in diatonic waves and ripples, the cello to the fore, then becomes more chromatic, inflamed in the manner of Debussy’s favorite artist, Turner. Receding once more into a folk idiom, the music accedes to fate, an element of modal plainchant settling over the emotional landscape. The last movement embodies three distinct tempo changes, moving from relative, dreamy stasis to polyphonic agitation and Gothic chiaroscuro in the manner of Faure. The music then weaves, elastically, to a new plane of experience, an apotheosis of burnt flesh and wild imaginings. Cyclically, we return to our primordial beginnings renewed, for our frail barque has crossed waters of which Baudelaire dreamed of with impunity.