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Hyperion Records

CDA67664 - Fauré & Franck: String Quartets
Sunset at Eragny (1890) by Camille Pissarro (1831-1903)
Israel Museum, Jerusalem / Bequest of Johanna & Ludovic Lawrence / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: December 2007
Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, United Kingdom
Produced by Jeremy Hayes
Engineered by Ben Connellan
Release date: August 2008
Total duration: 66 minutes 55 seconds


'This is a notably well-recorded disc; we're placed, it seems, right in the middle of the music-making, and from the opening bars of the Franck we feel the intensity of the Dante's commitment … by turns vigorous and tender, and with impressive variety of expression … playing of great accomplishment' (Gramophone)

'This is a fascinating juxtaposition … sublime, yet undervalued masterpieces. The Dante Quartet are superb advocates, especially in the Franck, where they are without peer among modern accounts' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Written just before his death in an accident in 1890, Franck's only string quartet pumps with nervous energy and heady hothouse emotions, brilliantly realised here by the Dante players' (The Independent)

'This latest disc of Franck and Fauré marks the beginning of a new relationship with Hyperion, which could not have begun on a better note' (The Daily Telegraph)

'This new disc by the Dante Quartet leaves a strong impression … this version of the Fauré quartet is one to which I shall happily return. There are moments of the most ravishing beauty in this ultra-refined score, and the Dante relish these most sensitively … Hyperion's recording sounds extremely natural, and the disc is enhanced by fine notes from Roger Nichols' (International Record Review)

'This is a wonderfully played pairing of perhaps the two greatest of all French string quartets … it is a measure of the outstanding quality of the Dante Quartet that both works are projected as vividly and immediately as they are. There's such a passionate involvement about their playing, such belief in the music's outstanding qualities … it's an outstanding disc' (The Guardian)

'No dithering with the Dante Quartet in their Hyperion debut: they plunge into whatever they play with passion, energy and communal spirit … the Franck dazzles with its boisterous invention; the Fauré cools brows with its thoughtful restraint. To both the players bring the same expertise and vast colour range. And the recording's superb … don't hestitate' (The Times)

'Played with the impassioned commitment that it demands and that it inspires in the excellent Dante Quartet, [Franck] is an imposing piece, not least its eloquent slow movement … the Dante play it [Fauré] with conspicuous beauty and conviction' (The Sunday Times)

'The Dante Quartet's triumph is that it doesn't allow itself to fall into the trap of over-stressing the austerity of Fauré's language, but instead chooses to let his remarkable inventiveness and strength of spirit shine out. Franck's String Quartet in D is also performed with great depth of feeling and sensitivity' (Classic FM Magazine)

'The string quartet in D [Franck] both looks back to the serious intent of Brahms and Beethoven, yet contains fresh (and youthful) language that could so easily take him into the languid modernism of Ravel and Debussy. This performance by the Dante Quartet captures that delicious ambivalence. Fauré's soft-spun E minor String Quartet makes a perfect partner work' (The Scotsman)

'The music is played with absolute commitment and intensity' (Manchester Evening News)

Fauré & Franck: String Quartets
Scherzo: Vivace  [4'59]
Larghetto  [10'24]
Allegro molto  [12'50]
Allegro moderato  [6'03]
Andante  [8'34]
Allegro  [8'19]

The great French composers Fauré and Franck have generally been cast as total opposites, but in fact they had much in common. Neither were really men of the theatre, nor were they natural symphonists, nor were they flashy orchestrators in the Berlioz or Rimsky-Korsakov tradition. But both cultivated what the French call ‘intériorité’, which one could translate as ‘intimacy’, though this loses the sense of deep reflection, even of transcendence, immanent in the French term. Finally, as it turned out, the last works of both were string quartets. Recorded together here, these beautiful final works demonstrate a thorough maturity of spirit and talent in both composers.

Franck’s quartet breaks new ground, particularly in the complex structure of the first movement. The discourse is also shot through with sudden silences, as though questioning the propriety of the whole enterprise—silences whose force was surely not lost on the young Debussy, who a few years later was to claim silence as one of his most fruitful discoveries. The String Quartet in E minor by Fauré is almost backward-looking in its modal tonality, and a model of ‘intériorité’.

Winner of the prestigious Royal Philharmonic Society Award for Chamber Music in 2007, the Dante Quartet is known for its imaginative programming and the emotional intensity of its performances. The group was founded in 1995 at the International Musicians’ Seminar at Prussia Cove, Cornwall. This is its first recording for Hyperion.

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
’There is no example’, wrote Franck’s pupil Vincent d’Indy, ‘even among musicians of genius, of a good string quartet dating from their youth; the best Mozart quartets are those from 1789 and 1790, when the composer was thirty-three—and thirty-three, for Mozart, was practically old age.’ Ignoring for a moment the logical inconsistency in d’Indy’s argument (Mozart did not know in 1790 that he would die a year later), we may even so read his statement as a profession of faith harking back to the pre-eminent place of the late Beethoven quartets in the nineteenth-century canon. The idea of writing a string quartet that took no account of Beethoven seems not to have crossed d’Indy’s mind; and when Debussy and Ravel attempted the genre at the ages of thirty-two and twenty-eight respectively, his response (as relayed to the present writer by Georges Auric) was to dismiss their efforts as ‘de jolis morceaux pour quatuor à cordes’.

To be fairer to d’Indy, he made his opening comment with specific reference to Franck’s String Quartet, begun in the spring of 1889 when the composer was sixty-six and first performed at a Société nationale concert at the Salle Pleyel on 19 April 1890, seven months before his death in a traffic accident. It received great acclaim; to which Franck’s slightly barbed response was that at last the French public seemed to be appreciating him. As a close friend and disciple, d’Indy was privy for a number of years to Franck’s composing plans and was able therefore to state that his teacher had first had the idea of writing a quartet in the early 1870s, at the time when the Société nationale was founded with the mission of injecting some intellectual rigour into French music in the wake of Offenbach’s orgy of lightheartedness. Nothing came of Franck’s idea and the next clue d’Indy had that a quartet was back on the agenda was in 1888 when, to his surprise, he saw scores on Franck’s piano of Beethoven, Schubert and (even) Brahms quartets.

The outcome from his study of these scores betrays their influence only in the most general sense—a Beethovenian seriousness of purpose in all movements except the second, and a penchant for rich textures that might be dubbed Brahmsian. Franck’s desire to break new ground is evident, most notably in the structure of the first movement. Here he combines traditional sonata form with the ternary form of the lied, to give the overall shape A-B-A'-B'-A, in which A (Poco lento) is the cyclic theme (or as d’Indy charmingly calls it, ‘l’idée mère’), B (Allegro) is the sonata exposition and B' the development and recapitulation. As a further refinement, the central lied section (A') develops the cyclic theme as a fugue, beginning on the viola. The result of all this is that we hear the four instruments struggling, through the means of sonata form, to recapture the radiance of the opening lied, and failing. It is only with the reprise of the opening bars, varied and abbreviated, that the movement reaches a truly satisfying conclusion.

Not surprisingly, this movement gave Franck considerable trouble, going through at least three different versions. The end of the final version is dated 29 October 1889 (duration given as seventeen minutes), but by 9 November the following Scherzo was done, the autograph showing hardly any crossings-out. This movement shows a Franck that had not really appeared so far in his chamber music, though we can hear traces in the lovely symphonic poem Les Eolides: not the pater seraphicus so much as the pater jocularis, telling jokes and pulling rabbits out of hats. The atmosphere is Mendelssohnian in its lightness and wit, even if Franck engages in harmonic twists that lay outside Mendelssohn’s vocabulary. The discourse is also shot through with sudden silences, as though questioning the propriety of the whole enterprise—silences whose force was surely not lost on the young Debussy, who a few years later was to claim silence as one of his most fruitful discoveries.

The spirit of Mendelssohn also hovers over the Larghetto, in Franck’s favourite B major, setting up a mediant relationship with the overall D major that he may possibly have copied from Brahms. Again, the opening theme of this movement gave him considerable trouble and d’Indy recounts how, arriving at Franck’s flat one day, he was greeted by cries of ‘I’ve found it!’ even before they had shaken hands. But Franck’s inspiration needs more space than Mendelssohn’s—in this case thirty-three bars, of which every one, while sometimes taking surprising steps in the argument, in retrospect seems inevitable. The form is a rondo with the opening theme repeated almost unchanged, except for transposition up an octave before the brief coda marked ‘recitando’, which makes much of the theme’s triplet figures.

The finale offers obeisance to Beethoven’s Symphony No 9 in quoting from previous movements (here in the order 3, 2, 1) before launching on its own course—though its first theme borrows the descending triad from the ‘idée mère’, likewise beginning on an upbeat. The movement adheres to traditional sonata form, but it is no surprise, after the opening reminiscences, to find them again in the final pages, though now worked into a coherent structure. Here at last we can enjoy the blaze of D major denied us at the end of the first movement.

After Franck’s death in 1890, d’Indy to a large extent perpetuated his teacher’s style and attitude through the founding of the Schola Cantorum, whose aims were self-confessedly lofty and unmaterialistic. Because its rival, the opera-oriented Conservatoire, had Fauré as its director between 1905 and 1920, Fauré and Franck have generally been cast as total opposites. But in fact they had much in common. Neither were really men of the theatre, nor were they natural symphonists (the rude remarks passed on Franck’s Symphony over the years would fill a small book), nor were they flashy orchestrators in the Berlioz or Rimsky tradition. But both cultivated what the French call ‘intériorité’, which one could translate as ‘intimacy’, though this loses the sense of deep reflection, even of transcendence, immanent in the French term. Finally, as it turned out, both of their last works were string quartets.

By 1920 the seventy-five-year-old Fauré’s hearing problems could no longer be disguised and he was, at the very least, encouraged to leave his post as Conservatoire director. The remaining four years of his life contained many melancholy moments when he even longed for death. But, as his son Philippe recalled: ‘[He] could still surprise us by appearing really active. One day some friends had taken him out to dinner and he came back quite late in a mood of bravura, with his hat over one ear. A sparkling dining room, bright dresses, a breath of society atmosphere, something lively and unexpected had been enough to lift his spirits, and he declared himself ready to go and paint the town red!’ It has to be said that there is little, if anything, painted red in the String Quartet. Nonetheless, the energy can still be sensed, transferred from the social to the intellectual sphere.

On 9 September 1923 Fauré wrote to his wife: ‘I’ve started a Quartet for strings, without piano. It’s a medium in which Beethoven was particularly active, which is enough to give all those people who are not Beethoven the jitters!’ To start himself off he went back to a couple of themes from an abandoned violin concerto of 1878. The changes he made were mostly to the rhythms, but the first theme, heard here on the first violin as an answer to the viola’s opening question, now boasts a Phrygian F natural in its E minor contour instead of the original F sharp. It is a sign of his self-confidence that, at a time when Les Six were indeed painting Paris red and Schoenberg was inventing a system that would ensure German musical supremacy for a hundred years, Fauré should continue to engage with the modal writing that had served him well for so long. The movement is in sonata form, with the viola’s questioning phrase removed for the reprise and, as usual, the whole process now made more compact.

The Andante was the first movement Fauré composed, finishing it on 12 September 1923, and to that extent it lends its sober, meditative tone to the whole quartet. As in the first movement, scales and scalic fragments play a large part, set off against the occasional octave leap. There is a straightforward reprise of the opening just before halfway, but few other formal landmarks that can be heard easily. Possibly a more rewarding activity for the listener is simply to go with the dynamic highs and lows: bars of crescendo and diminuendo vastly outnumber those that are static and these changes often operate over a small period of time. In all likelihood Fauré would have echoed the remark of his pupil Ravel, that performers tended to make his crescendos too limited in range. The other feature that repays attention is the interplay of thematic fragments, nearly always generating different harmonies each time, and whose resolution is rarely what we expect.

On the day he completed the quartet, 12 September 1924, exactly a year after finishing the slow movement, Fauré mentioned to his wife the possibility of a short movement to come between the first and second, ‘but as there’s no real necessity for it, I won’t exhaust myself searching for one’. Presumably this would have been in the nature of a scherzo, as in the Franck quartet. If this was not in fact necessary, it was because the last movement, ‘light and cheerful’ in the composer’s own words, does duty for a scherzo. Again formal landmarks are probably of less value to the listener than motivic and rhythmic patterns, in particular the one introduced by the cello in the third bar, an up/down figure characterized by its distinctive rhythm, achieved by tying a quaver triplet to a duplet. This becomes especially insistent in the lead-up to the final bars, at which point, for the first and only time in the quartet, we hear unhampered triplets—clearly a deliberate self-denying ordinance. The explosion of joy they signal emphasizes a triumphant arrival in E major.

No startling interruptions, then, no sudden silences or wild diversions, no magical harmonics or moments of lush self-indulgence. Instead, Fauré perfectly realizes the prescription d’Indy offered with regard to Franck’s quartet: ‘to obtain that variety in unity which is the medium’s essential condition, a thorough maturity of spirit and talent, combined with an experienced technical grasp, is absolutely indispensable.’

Roger Nichols © 2008

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