After having been mightily impressed with the Quatuor Van Kuijk's 2022 Alpha Classics Mendelssohn set (please see my review elsewhere on this blog), I was eager to hear more from this group. Not wanting to get into their quasi "period" playing style they adopt in Mozart and Schubert, I turned to their other recording, the 2017 Alpha Classics CD of the Debussy and Ravel Quartets. And I am thrilled to hear many of the same qualities I enjoyed in their Mendelssohn.
Honestly, many of the observations I made describing their Mendelssohn apply to these French quartets as well. However it isn't a cut-and-paste job. All the characteristics I admire in their playing are elevated a step further in these highly Impressionistic works. For example, the use of vibrato is even more varied - from flatly none at all, to full-bodied vibrancy. And dynamics are even wider - the likes of which I've never heard before in Debussy and Ravel. And the variety of tone colors and tonal blend is even more pronounced.
Starting with the Debussy, which comes first on the CD, I was struck with how the dynamic extremes and variety of color in their playing are positively orchestral. I was mesmerized by the awesomeness of what I was hearing and had to continually remind myself this was just 4 players creating this incredible palette of sound. I was particularly impressed in fortissimo passages how the group minimizes their vibrato to produce an amazing strength - and sheer mass - of sound, without ever sounding forced, pushy or gruff. It's not dissimilar to a full orchestral string section whose vibrato becomes less distinctly discernable as the group combines to play fortissimo en masse. I can think of many recordings of these Quartets which are disfigured by ugly fortissimos, as the group tries too hard to sound larger than they are in an effort to sound "big". Like overblown brass blats from a high school marching band, string quartets can over-play and create unpleasant sounds when trying to play more loudly than they actually can (or should). But not here. The music just grows louder - more powerful and monumental - but the quality of sound production is never compromised. It's difficult to describe, actually. But it's incredible, and very few groups can achieve it so impressively.
And then ... a delicate, shimmering pianissimo follows, drawing the listener in with rapt attention and an expectancy of what's happening next. It's the suddenness of dynamic contrasts which is so riveting. And even fewer groups can achieve this so marvelously.
Tempos can be tricky in Debussy and they are masterfully handled here. Where other groups like to linger and hold back the tempo with an abundance of unmarked rubato, the Van Kuijk moves the music forward with propulsion, sweeping the listener along. This sense of momentum, with speeds often slightly quicker than usual, reveals that Debussy can be positively invigorating. Yet it's not driven. Far from it. There is a resilient ebb and flow, a self-effacing fluidity, which enhances the very essence of this music. I must mention it again, it's the suddenness of contrasts which engages the listener in a way not often encountered, especially in a recorded performance.
Overall, I was fascinated by how "modern" Debussy sounds in this performance of his quartet (which, amazingly, was written in 1893 - the year Tchaikovsky died). The Van Kuijk are more purposeful than usual, slightly less hazily "impressionistic", as if committed to bringing the piece soundly into the 20th-Century. They play it with such conviction, it's almost like hearing it for the first time.
This is surely the most captivating, exciting and thoroughly involving recording of the Debussy I have ever heard. It would therefore be difficult for the Ravel to rise to these exalted heights. And it nearly does.
The opening Allegro Moderato sets the stage with a disarming simplicity and decidedly more freedom with tempos. There is an exquisiteness here which is wholly appropriate (and different from that heard in the Debussy). Also appropriate for Ravel, there are dramatic outbursts as well. And once again I am dazzled by the dynamic contrasts.
The pizzicato second movement is most assuredly Vif - gossamer and very exciting, while the slow movement is sufficiently moody, almost brooding. Then hold on for the finale, which blasts off like a rocket launch. If the Van Kuijk makes Debussy invigorating, they take this Ravel to another level altogether. It is absolutely electrifying.
If I was initially struck by how modern the Debussy sounds, I am amazed after listening to the Ravel at how different the two pieces are in these performances. They were composed just 10 years apart, yet are played here with distinct individuality. I believe many groups set out to highlight the similarities, while the Quatuor Van Kuijk relishes the differences.
I must emphatically state that Alpha Classics is certainly deserving of praise for the outstanding success of these recordings. As in the companion Mendelssohn set, one forgets this is a CD played on electronics in the living room. It simply sounds like the real thing - superbly focused, palpably present, richly colorful and utterly natural. The wide dynamic range is given space to expand effortlessly into a hall which seems perfectly suited for this music - providing plenty of warmth and just enough reverb to be atmospheric, yet spacious, airy and detailed. The hall isn't too big; rather it's an intimate setting, as if the musicians are in the room with you. However, the perspective is not so close that bow-on-string sounds are exaggerated, but it does reveal the texture to the creation of sound. In other words, it's about as realistic and 3-dimensional as string quartet recordings get.
Anyone familiar with my reviews will probably know what is inevitably coming next. And indeed I must grumble about the program. Looking at the track listing, one will notice the final work on this string quartet concert is a vocal work by Chausson. And I simply must ask - WHY? It is unquestionably, inconceivably out of place here. It is a slow, morose work for mezzo-soprano which is difficult to endure in the best of settings. Making it even worse, they inexplicably place it last on the CD - AFTER the thrilling conclusion of the Ravel! I'm not a fan of "songs" in any circumstance and its inclusion here is most unwelcome.
I would have actually preferred they didn't include a filler at all if this is all they could come up with. And in fairness, most CDs offering these 2 string quartets don't. On the other hand, many do - something much more appropriate, like another string quartet. We often see the Faure. Or something unusual like the Saint-Saens First. Or more adventurous yet, some even give us the Dutilleux (Ainsi la Nuit). I would have LOVED to have another string quartet played by the Quatuor Van Kuijk. Wouldn't it have been stupendous to hear them play Dutilleux?!
So, excluding the 7-minutes taken up by the Chausson, we're left with a playing time of just 58 minutes on this CD. And that's good enough for me, given the fabulous music-making.