Gabriel Pierné is remembered chiefly for his ballet Cydalise et le Chèvre-pied (including the delicious ‘March of the Little Fauns’) and, in a similarly miniature vein, the March of the Little Lead Soldiers. He composed a generous amount of chamber music, however, and one of the jewels among them is the Piano Quintet presented here.
This quintet, composed in 1916-17 and premiered early in 1919, was dedicated to Fauré. Stylistically, it is akin to that composer’s works, and also to Franck’s. (Franck taught young Pierné at the Paris Conservatoire, as did Massenet.) One particularly Franckian touch is the reappearance, in the last movement, of themes and rhythms heard in earlier movements. One might argue that Pierné miscalculates this device a little, because he introduces it before the movement has had an opportunity to assert its own unique thematic identity. (Of course, Beethoven makes a similar ‘miscalculation’ in the last movement of his Ninth Symphony!)
In between, the music becomes increasingly agitated. It gives the movement an air of a man absent-mindedly, and then in greater panic, reviewing what is in his shopping basket and trying to recall what is missing, because he has left his shopping list at home. Once Pierné introduces ‘sunny’ new material in E major (‘the clouds disperse’, Roger Nichols’s booklet note appropriately comments), it is, to mix metaphors, smooth sailing all the way to a triumphant coda. The quintet’s opening pages are most striking: a piano ostinato paces fretfully while the strings languidly sigh. In its tasteful melancholy, it could hardly be more French. The second movement is dominated by the rhythm of a Basque zortzico (‘tum-tum-ti-tum-ti’, as Nichols transliterates it) and, like the first movement, it is lightly melancholy—or at least pleasantly indolent!
I find it difficult to understand why this music is not performed and recorded more frequently, because it is no less attractive than Fauré’s Piano Quartets and Piano Quintets. The Erato recording is well thought of. Perhaps that is a moot point because it is currently unavailable! I find it to be a trifle more emotional than this newcomer, which is excellent overall, if a little hard-edged in the final movement. I haven’t heard the more recent Timpani set (two CDs devoted to Pierné’s chamber works), but I note that the movement timings are similar.
If Pierné is associated with a pair of engaging but atypical trifles, fellow Franck pupil Louis Vierne is associated with organ music. (As a performer, he was a master of that instrument, and he even died there, in Notre-Dame de Paris, felled by a heart attack or a stroke near the end of a recital.) Nevertheless, like Pierné, Vierne composed a respectable amount of chamber music, of which this String Quartet, composed in 1894 when Vierne was 24, is the first mature example. The influence of Franck is strong here as well, although that influence is heard more in the thematic material than in the work’s architecture. It does not sound like organ music arranged for a string quartet, with the exception of the final bars, which, coming after an exciting fugue, are an ‘Amen’ writ large! If Vierne’s organ symphonies seem too long—they do to me, anyway—the String Quartet is happily concise. The nervous first movement really holds the listener’s attention, although there is more relaxed contrasting material reminiscent of Debussy’s sole work in this genre. The little Intermezzo is a fairy dance—it could be played with more bounce than the Goldner String Quartet manages here—and the Andante quasi adagio third movement is elegiac without being overblown. All in all, this String Quartet, like Pierné’s work, has been unfairly neglected, and it would be nice if Debussy's and Ravel’s quartets occasionally invited it out for a stroll, so to speak.
I’ve already hinted that I am mostly (but not completely) satisfied with the present performances. One would have little difficulty guessing that the performers are not French. A soupçon more sentiment and a soupçon less insistence on rushing the tour group on to the next attraction would have made these readings even better. The Goldner’s sound is rather beefy for this music; no one will accuse them of precious understatement. Having said that, I admit that these are very well-thought-out performances. The recording is fine too, although in Pierné’s Piano Quintet the piano comes off less well than the strings, sounding a bit unclear and recessed. I wouldn’t let any of these factors keep me from recommending this release, however.