Composers Jean Cras [1879-1932] and Louis Vierne [1870-1937] are both members of the FOSQC. I previously discussed four other members, Chausson and Faure in July 2016, and rewrote Debussy and Ravel in October 2016).
The Cras quartet, written in 1909, has four movements. It opens with a deep cello melody before the violins go solo in this splendid slow and moving mood. A brief pause ensues. The violin leads with a new melody, with plenty of space for the other instruments. The melody becomes orchestral as the violins skate across the ensemble’s musings. Another brief pause and a new melody emerges. This is very gentle music. The violins converse, then the cello has its say. The orchestral tone returns and a sweeping downward violin motif gives this passage impetus. Then a slow mood emerges, cello abounds; we are back in quartet territory! The violins repeat the descending motif several times. The ending comes as a fine piece of miniaturism. It’s a fabulous tiny self-contained section!
The next movement opens with a strikingly beautiful melodic mood. Now this is a string quartet! It meanders along until a little more orchestral writing occurs; this is truly wonderful too. Back to the quartet and we have some stunning writing. An orchestral section appears before it gently floats back to the two violins. The dialogue continues for two minutes before it ends peacefully.
The third movement begins with a cello and then a folk-like melody appears. A brief orchestral section gives way to a recapitulation of the opening theme. This leads to a shimmering passage which invokes a new theme, developed slowly into a period of great sensitivity. The cello returns to pizzicato accompaniment, then the violins take over. Again, it sounds slightly orchestral as a major tonality changes to minor, leading to an increased intensity which is sustained to the conclusion.
The final movement opens with a shimmering flourish, which, after a slight pause, is repeated. The piece then moves into a moderate tempo which sounds a little like Dvorak. This influence continues into a stately passage, very folk-like and slowly; new motifs are explored as the intensity recedes. I’m starting to think that Dvorak could have written this movement; it’s certainly his territory. Now some longer melodies evoke Edvard Grieg. Finally, Cras returns and the introductory mood resumes. The next section is wonderful, full of optimism; the violins dominate. The end is in sight. The passage builds in intensity and concludes on an orchestral-like chord.
You will have to excuse my use of the word, and concept, of ‘orchestral’. It’s represented here by strong writing, with full sounding sections that are so reminiscent of an orchestra. Also, I hope it is pretty obvious that I really like this piece!
Louis Vierne’s String Quartet, Op.12, was written in 1894. It is in four movements. The piece opens with a solo cello, before the violins join in. The pace quickly picks up into a folk-like melodic section; this continues for some time. The violins dominate and the passage goes through several key changes. It then develops at a more moderate pace, all the while the violins leading the way. This mood continues to an ending featuring a series of chords.
The next movement begins with a skittish violin over a cello. Again folk-like, a charming melody develops. A recapitulation allows for some melodic development; it sounds a little like The Teddy Bears’ Picnic. It pauses briefly, then moves to a quiet conclusion. This movement is only three minutes long.
The third movement is an andante and offers up a satisfying mood. There are hints of a melody from Wagner’s symphonic poem Siegfried Idyll. The intensity increases for a while before a solo violin leads the passage into some stronger melodies. A solo violin goes way up into the high register and the ensemble begin to support it. There is a recapitulation of an earlier melody. There goes Siegfried Idyll again! The concluding section just bubbles along until it finds its resting place.
The final movement is dance-like, again with a folk-like feeling. It moves into quite a pace until the rhythm ceases and it enters a rubato passage. The violin quickly returns to tempo. Melodically, it is still folk-like. After a short pause, a brief fugal interlude ensues. The music struts and is a little orchestral (sorry about that). Nearing the end, the piece is going at a breakneck tempo and finally finishes the work on several repeated chords.
Vierne was also a virtuoso organist who wrote several major organ symphonies, and many works for solo organ. Some of them are quite transcendent. He died while performing the end of a piece, at the organ. As he fell, his left foot landed on the lowest bass pedal and the note reverberated through the cathedral in which he was giving the performance. (Thanks, Wiki).
As to availability, these two fine quartets are not paired on one CD. It’s a bit complicated. The Cras is paired with a Gounod SQ on Amazon US and with his own Piano Quintet on Amazon US and UK. The Vierne is paired with his own Piano Quintet or with a Pierne Piano Quintet on Amazon US and UK. Both quartets are on Spotify.
Listenability: The obligatory ‘je ne sais quoi’ applies.