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Gramophone The Archive Beta

December 2008 - page                    
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Debussy • Fauré • Ravel
Debussy String Quartet, Op 10 Fauré String Quartet, Op 121 Ravel String Quartet
Quatuor Ebène (Pierre Colombet, Gabriel Le Magadure vns Mathieu Herzog va Raphaël Merlin vc)
Virgin Classics (F) 519045-2 (80' • DDD)
Debussy. Ravel
Debussy String Quartet, Op io Ravel String Quartet
Australian Quartet (Sophie Rowell, Anne Horton vns Sally Bond va Rachel Johnston vc)
ABC Classics (F) 476 6904 (55' • DDD)
Among the many breathtaking moments on the Ebène Quartet's CD, there is one in particular that I kept returning to. It occurs at around 1'14" into the Ravel's slow movement, the second set, which enters like a bittersweet memory before a literal recollection of the Quartet's opening motif. Other subtle details of interpretation include the chord at 2'03" that underpins a transformation of the first subject before the same chord leads directly into the second subject – and when it does, utterly changing in character, turning warmer, more openly inviting. The ebb and flow of the passage at 5'29" where the second subject rides above an arpeggiated accompaniment, music that looks both forwards to Debussy's own La mer and backwards to Rimsky's Sheherazade (or so it seems). There's a fluidity to the Ebène's playing of both works that suits the music's character, a mood of wistfulness too that the Ravel especially benefits from. This improvisatory approach is hardly surprising from an ensemble that is also celebrated for its jazz performances.
It was a brilliant idea to include Fauré's late Quartet which, in a sense, provides the linchpin for all three works, the Ravel having been composed in Fauré's class to mark the 10th anniversary of Debussy's quartet, and which is dedicated to Fauré. An extraordinary work by any standards, ethereal and other-worldly with themes that seem constantly to be drawn skywards, Fauré's Quartet responds well to the Ebène's sensitised approach. I can't imagine that anyone requiring this particular trio of works will be disappointed, which makes the various pairings of the Ravel and Debussy quartets on their own seem somewhat less enticing. One such coupling arrives on the ABC label from the Australian Quartet. Their Debussy/Ravel is lustrous, earnest, energetic and warm-hearted. But Quatuor Ebène scores highest for an almost palpable sense of wonder, an impression that the Australians, for all their proficiency, don't quite match.
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Rob Cowan

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