ALBÉRIC MAGNARD – The String Quartet

French Late Romantic composer Lucien Denis Gabriel Albéric Magnard [1865-1914] wrote one string quartet. It is officially titled String Quartet in E minor, op. 16 and was composed in 1903. This makes him one of the later members of the French One String Quartet Club. Significantly, he would have had a chance to become familiar with the quartets of Debussy and Ravel and I believe I can hear this in the work. It is in four movements.

The opening movement is long, as are most of the movements as the work runs over forty minutes. The flavour is Romantic but with a touch of abstraction, one could argue Impressionism. After a jaunty start there is a period of sombre violin lines, which meander for a time before the music coheres into a positive mood, with overlapping violin melodies contributing. A sense of urgency is heard, before another gentle, sparse passage. Slowly the dynamics return, this time stronger than before and the music has a sense of drama as violins express powerfully over the ensemble. Another lilting passage ensues with beautiful violin writing, creating an alluring mood. The cello supports the violins with purposeful lines and the energy rises again. The dynamics continue to rise and fall, with periods of lyricism contrasted with more assertive lines. Eventually, the lyricism prevails for an extended phase, which slowly moves into sparsity, with little movement. The ending is a quite fade of the violins.

A much shorter movement, marked serenade, commences with a passage featuring predominantly a violin duet – this is rather attractive. A hint of pizzicato changes the mood with some fine new melodies being presented, with appropriate variations. A section of shrill violins doesn’t last and the previous feeling is resumed. This is a serenade, very melodic and it finishes on a brief but charming pizzicato passage.

The third movement is marked chant funebre; two translations I found were lament and funeral song. Funereal it is, with minor key melodies over a sparse accompaniment. The violins are longing, but not dark – there is a hint of optimism here. Slowly the passage unfolds with the melodies becoming progressively more powerful and positive. Now the dynamics recede, however, the melodies still remain positive. The violins begin to fly higher again, and then a hint of tension is felt. A strong violin, in a low register takes control and is complemented by the second violin, which eventually moves into a rhythmic role. Slowly, a chaotic mood unfolds, to be followed by a reprise, which features the two violins back in duet mode. This whole movement has a succession of charming melodies. Nearing the end, the sound is Beethoven-like with lilting violins in the high register – a sustained shrill chord is absolutely perfect.

Assertive violins commence the finale and the mood is filled with violin swoops and overlapping lines. A chordal passage is strong and leads to a cello supporting the dancing violins with intermittent phrases. Now the cello becomes part of the dance and playfully combines with the violins for a busy passage. Another rhythmic chordal passage unfolds and the violins emerge from it with more attractive melodies. A return to the strong cello brings on a charming moment where the violins exchange phrases. Except for the cello interludes, the violins dominate this movement. A gentle passage has the cello conspicuous again – this is maintained for some time. Next we have a  slightly dramatic moment and a lot of music happens in a short time. The conclusion is a brief racing passage for violins into a final flourish.

The review CD, performed beautifully by Quatuor Ysaÿe, is paired with Fauré’s only string quartet. There is another version, by the Via Nova Quartet which also contains the quartets of Roussel and Chausson. Both of these CDs are available on Amazon US and UK. The Via Nova seems to be much cheaper and represents a bargain.

The Ysaÿe version can be heard on Spotify, YouTube, and earsense.

Listenability: Exceptionally fine melodic work.


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