The two quartets from French Impressionists Claude Debussy [1862–1918] in G minor and Maurice Ravel [1875-1937] in F major are strangely the only pieces they composed in this genre. Interestingly, both composers eschewed the term Impressionism but history seems to have labelled them as such.
The two works are often paired together on a CD and they fit perfectly. This music has a universal appeal; many people would own a set. It’s a bit like trumpeter Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue; everybody owns or likes this timeless jazz classic. It has an impressionistic flavour too.
The Debussy is in four movements. It begins with a measured rhythmic passage. A strong melody is established on top of a busy accompaniment. Now there is a gentle section which slowly develops into intensity. A violin plays a lamenting line before the opening is repeated. The two violins take control and instigate some marvellous melodies, as well as a recapitulation of the first theme. The mood then darkens as the composer reharmonises the main melody. The ending is a very busy long phrase, which goes out on a flourish.
The second movement opens with pizzicato. Eventually a violin and cello emerge with a melody. The opening chords return several times but the melody is persistent and won’t yield until a solo cello introduces a new mood. The violins float across the top of the music. Beautiful! The pizzicato returns, then an old melody is made new again. The movement concludes with cello and a violin.
The next movement features a solo cello with interjections from the other strings. Then follows an extremely quiet and graceful passage for the violins. Eventually the cello and viola enter, all the time playing in a measured way. This is very precious music; the violins are oh, so gentle. A new melody takes over, together with a chord change. It slowly builds into a new mood for the whole ensemble. There is a hint of an old melody before it breaks into a full orchestral sounding passage. It now drops back to nothing, just a few autumn leaves of melodic ideas. We have a chord change as two violins wander over the other strings, which are sustained. The leaves are gently blown away leaving nothing.
The final movement opens with a cello in the lower register. This is a very quiet, sparse opening. A hint of a melody emerges from the cello and it really moves. The whole quartet are pushing hard. A violin comes to the fore and we are back in standard string quartet fare. There are hints of previous melodies, judiciously worked into the form. Now there is agitation and melodies recur at a crescendo level. They taper off, then are reinvigorated for the final chord. Thank you, Claude Debussy!
The Ravel opens with a lilting melody which is restated, slightly modified. A moment of dissonance appears before the intensity is lifted with a recapitulation of the theme. Peace returns with a beautifully harmonised version of the opening melody. The harmony changes and affects the melody in many differing ways. There is dissonance in abundance now but the melody keeps reappearing. It reaches several crescendos before dropping back to moderate level. The opening melody eventually sustains the whole movement. The ending is a cello arpeggio and one last violin note. This is a brilliant, rapturous movement.
The next movement starts with a short pizzicato statement, then a melodic motif, before the pizzicato is repeated. Shimmering violin chords over the pizzicato are very effective. A new section begins with two violins on a melancholy melody. The cello and viola join in to produce a slow lament that eventually moves into a tempo. There are a lot of dynamic changes and still the opening melody appears, as pizzicato. The recapitulation races towards the end, with assorted pizzicato phrases and chords.
The third movement opens with a cello conversation, which is continued by the violin. Over a string backdrop, a new melody unfolds. A most graceful passage unfolds which eventually gathers strength from a deep cello. A new section begins, rapidly rising to a crescendo. As this concludes, there are more spacious violin motifs. The cello returns to push toward the end, together now with the ensemble. It ends on a hanging note.
The final movement introduction is very aggressive. It eventually settles into a melodic section before a passing reference to the introduction leads into an agitated passage. This mood is sustained for a good while. Now the melodies return; they are everywhere, from all members. The chaos returns briefly before a charming passage takes shape. There is one more chaotic crescendo which ends the quartet. That was something, Mr Ravel!
The music contained herein is extremely fine. From the beautiful opening of the Debussy to the assertive closing movement of the Ravel, the music takes you to all points in between. The contrast between the minor and major keys works perfectly. Both quartets are filled with strong, memorable melodies.
These works are a good place to start a string quartet collection. There are a host of fine versions available. I have the Borodin Quartet and the Quartetto Italiano but Amazon US has at least 15 pages of the pairing!
Listenability: Conservative impressionism with a certain ‘je ne sais quoi‘.