Today’s formative-album replay: Ravel & Debussy: String Quartets, Chilingirian Quartet. We go to the fin-de-siecle French composers for texture, not tunes. Right? Well, that ignores the Dada plainsong of Satie, for one. And it sells short a large part of the appeal of this perfect pair of string quartets, to my ears the Sgt. Pepper’s and Pet Sounds of Belle Époque chamber music. I hear them not only as the fragrant, burbling harmonic laboratories that string quartets conventionally represent but as lively melodic workouts too. On this relisten in particular I was struck by the extent to which both composers use the tightly interlaced sonority of the strings to create a pure, seamless sound world manifestly unlike those of their other chamber, vocal, or orchestral works, with their contrasting colors and timbres, or even their piano works’ crystalline glint--and then exploit that sonic palette not merely as a lush end in itself but as a means to sing out all the more. Four strings have seldom sounded more like a single voice, and a full-throated one at that.
The melodic bounty most evident in the opening movement of the Ravel, to my mind one of his (or anyone’s) perfect creations; it has an uncannily light, breathing quality throughout, as if its phrases are a series of delicate inhalations, its cadences blown kisses. (The Andrew Bird-cited second movement, heard in the video above, ain't no slouch either.) And even when it sharpens or fattens its gestures, it maintains a poise and proportion, a rhythmic and dynamic surety, that is pure, unruffled Cheshire-cat Ravel. The Debussy, on the other hand, has a more crabbed stance and insistent temper; I can think of few other works by this sensitive genius that feel as tightly coiled or as roughly hewn. A spinning top with jagged edges, its melodies feel wrenched or distilled from anguish.
But tunes they both offer, if not in overflowing abundance then in gorgeous plenty enough for me, reaped from the rich harmonic fields that wave and churn throughout. Though written a decade apart, with Debussy’s blazing the trail and Ravel’s deft homage surpassing the original, these quartets are bound together, taut as horsehair bows, like no other two works by these French masters--the perfect two-sided program, in other words. Maybe that's why I wore out this LP.
Previous Ravel replay: Complete Music for Piano.