After strongly criticizing Alpha Classics for their poor production (regarding layout, presentation and quality control) of the Belcea Quartet's 2019 complete Beethoven String Quartets, I am pleased to make an entirely positive report about this 2015 box of Faure chamber music. None of the problems with the Beethoven is experienced with this Faure. The music is sensibly laid out over 5 CDs (one each dedicated to the Piano Quartets and Quintets, and the rest, for smaller ensembles, logically spread over the remaining 3). The individual sleeves are printed with the correct information and are mercifully free of the sticky substance which lined the Beethoven sleeves. Finally, all the discs are present and accounted for and we're off to a great start. Fortunately, the music on offer is simply superb.
This set, ultimately, is recommendable for just one primary reason - Eric Le Sage at the piano. I could stop writing right here. Anyone who knows Le Sage from his fabulous, comprehensive 1998 recordings of Poulenc chamber music on RCA (reissued complete in a 2016 budget box set) and his 2-disc set of Connesson chamber music on SONY will be happy to experience the same marvelous music-making in Faure. He has French chamber music in his very bones - not only the ultimate in musical interpretation, but also in supreme pianistic abilities. He makes everything sound so effortlessly beautiful, with an incredible variety of tonal colors, articulation and touch.
Moreover, Eric Le Sage attracts the most talented musicians to play with him. I'm not surprised; he's so good, I imagine every musician the world over wants to play with him. I am not familiar with many of them on this collection, although well-known names do appear, such as the Quatuor Ebene, clarinetist Paul Meyer and Flutist Emmanuel Pahud.
I am not extensively experienced with Faure's chamber music. However, I am familiar with the main works on offer (the Piano Quartets/Quintets), particularly from the recordings by the Schubert Ensemble on ASV (Quartets) and Chandos (Quintets). They are very good, certainly, and made enough of a positive impression that I wanted to explore other recordings.
With Le Sage, it's not just the natural outpouring of musical lines, without over emoting, it's also the moving tempos and heartfelt expression - all combining to make the most rewarding listening and lasting impressions. I hear his readings as sounding more rhapsodic, whereas the Schubert Ensemble is a bit more intensely passionate. His Piano Quartets in particular are glorious, with ravishing legato and rapturously soaring, singing lines (thanks especially to the gorgeous violin playing of Daishin Kashimoto). The Quintets are also well done, if without quite the same lightness of touch. The recording is just a bit more forward, and the playing of the Quatour Ebene a touch more intense. I was somewhat surprised to discover the Schubert Ensemble's tempos in the Quintets are actually just slightly faster in every movement (except for the 2nd - Allegro Vivo - which flies like a gossamer dandelion tuft in the breeze with Le Sage), but nearly identical in the Quartets.
But there is a lot more music in this box.
Disc 1 features the Cello and Clarinet Sonatas.
Disc 2 - the Piano Quartets.
Disc 3 - the Piano Quintets.
Disc 4 offers us the music for piano 4-hands, where Le Sage is joined on the bench by Alexandre Theraud. It's all delightfully played with charm and grace, and well recorded. This disc is filled out with even more music. There are three short works for flute (including the famous Fantaisie), and the Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello, which is revealed here to be an absolute masterpiece.
As wonderful as all this is, I do believe they saved the best for last. Disc 5 gives us the two Violin Sonatas, along with incidental selections, again featuring violinist Daishin Kashimoto (as in the Quartets). What a lovely, sweetly singing violin sound he produces. And what a wonderful pairing he and Le Sage make. The ebb-and-flow of musical phrases is a constant pleasure. Indeed, these Sonatas are so colorful, and brought so vividly to life here, Faure's level of accomplishment is elevated to new heights within my understanding of the composer. There is a sense of creative freedom and harmonic expansion that I would never have expected to hear from Faure. They are simply glorious in these magnificent performances.
All of these works are similar to Schumann's String Quartets in that they require a masterful interpretation to bring them fully to life. There is no tolerance for dragging tempos or excessive rubato. Nor can there be any thickness or heaviness in the playing. Natural expression is of utmost importance, as are light-and-shade variety of textures and exploration of tonal color. This set excels in every category. And, again, Eric Le Sage is second to none for these very qualities.
Recorded over a 3-year span (2011-13), the sound throughout is consistently excellent. It sounds fine-tuned and tailored to each set of works and corresponding number of musicians involved. And in each case, the result is perfect for Faure - warm and richly colorful, but well focused, detailed and "present". The musicians are realistically balanced and placed within a spacious acoustic. It really doesn't get much better than this.
Also included is an enormous booklet with exhaustive information about this music. I have spent several days absorbing it all. But, sadly, there is nothing about the musicians. Surely that is an oversight. But I can't even think of finding fault. This is a wonderful box set in every way, and further highlights the blundered efforts with the later Beethoven box. Alpha Classics obviously knows how this should be done.
Finally, to anyone shying away, thinking that Faure chamber music is a little sleepy, I will say that it can be. But not here! Far from it. I was utterly amazed how musically glorious and passionately involving all this music is with Eric Le Sage in charge. I have enjoyed hours and hours of pleasure from it. I highly recommend it, along with the aforementioned Poulenc and Connesson collections on RCA/SONY. French chamber music at its absolute finest.