“Dawn to Dusk” RAVEL String Quartet. JANACEK String Quartet No.2. Avalon Quartet (Channel) – INKPOT
Dawn to Dusk
|CHANNEL CLASSICS CCS 14898
|For their debut recording on Channel, the Avalon String Quartet have chosen an interesting programme of Ravel and – well, not Debussy, as one might think – but Janácek, which they have entitled “Dawn to Dusk”. This beguiling title does encapsulate a great degree of the contrast between Ravel’s solitary String Quartet, one of his earliest substantial works, and Janácek’s Second String Quartet, the composer’s last major composition and completed only months before his death.
The Ravel String Quartet begins admirably, with the Avalon bringing a fresh and elegant approach to the music. They get totally inside the idiom of the musical interplay, uninhibited and passionate in their own voice, although on closer listening, they might not just yet match the technical incisiveness of the top-drawer quartets. One suspects that, with time and exposure, they might just reach that heady level of performance.
In particular, the Assez vif, with Ravel (left) drawing a leaf or two from his predecessor Debussy, features some delectable pizzicati dialogue. The last movement is equally feisty in character – too ferocious even for Ravel’s agité, perhaps – and clearly the Avalon are no shrinking violets when it comes to engaging the music head-on.
But it is in the slow movement that the beauty of their playing shines through. They embrace the Très lent indication in its full semantic context, fastidious in their tempi but unafraid to linger and contemplate when the music calls for it. The result is a conjuration of chirascuro moods and colours: the viola narrating the theme, the cello interjecting with deep, sonorous thoughts, and the tremolando of the high strings shimmering through: douceur et tendresse.
Janácek’s Initimate Letters, as the second quartet has been nicknamed, was originally called Love Letters by the composer and was very much a statement of his unrequited love: in 1917, Janácek met and fell in love with a lady, Kamilla Stösslova, who (unfortunately for the composer) was already married.
Nonetheless, over the next eleven years, Janácek (right) wrote hundreds of letters to her, most of which were unreplied. It was from this wellspring of desire that Janácek drew upon as inspiration for a prodiguous outpouring of works – the operas The Cunning Little Vixen and Káta Kabanová, Sinfonietta, Glagolitic Mass, Taras Bulba and Mládi all date from this final decade.
Coming right at the very end of this period was Intimate Letters, in which Janácek embarked on a psychological journey of his emotional psyche, putting down his feelings on musical record. The result is not something voyeuristic as much as it is heart-on-sleeve.
The Avalon embark on this journey with the same inclination as the Ravel: with little inhibition and much initiative. Without taking the opening Andante at a too-literal walking speed, their ensemble here is splendid, including a wonderful rendition of the love melody in mid-section.
This is dispelled by the schizophrenic “flashbacks” of the second movement, which finds the Avalon attacking with much finesse in outbursts of strong, rhythmic melody. A certain pensiveness follows in the next section, not unlike the meandering longeurs of Berlioz – except that the Avalon wisely do not over-strain the emotive factor.
The conclusion, which the composer marked “a longing fulfilled” (whether this represents the completion of his biographical journey or a fulfilment of his love-fantasy is not answered), comes as a cathartic conclusion to an emotional, wrenching journey.
The sound quality on this recording, performed in the Hervormde Kerk in The Netherlands, is spacious, but not overwhelmingly so. Veteran producer-editor Jared Sacks works his usual magic in capturing an ideal balance for the quartet. Curiously, the members play on a variety of instruments, ranging chronologically from an antique 1881 viola to a modern 1995 Greg Aif violin.
The Avalon String Quartet, on the basis of this album, are certainly a group to watch out for. They delve into this music with great sensitivy and intensity when it calls for it. I do have to point out, though, that this selection of programme means that the album is less competitive than the rest of the field: collectors looking to build up repertoire will have better alternatives, unless they are specifically looking for this coupling. However, the Avalon do have something to say about Ravel and Janácek, and one could do well to have a listen.
BENJAMIN CHEE usually consumes his quartet music with a can of beer (A&W Root).
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845: 5.3.2001 Benjamin Chee
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