About this Recording
8.554722 - FAURE / RAVEL: String Quartets
English 

Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) • Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

String Quartets

Bringing together on one disc the two quartets of Ravel and Fauré is not the result of pure chance. These works are closely linked, as were their creators, who vowed each other an 'unfailing affection'.

Born in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques département on 7th March, 1875, Ravel was introduced to music's joys by his father, an engineer: 'Lacking musical theory, that I have never learnt, I started studying the piano when about six years of age.' In 1897, he went to the Paris Conservatoire and met Fauré in his composition class. A relentlessly hard worker, but forever losing in competitions, Ravel had to be content with second prize in the Prix de Rome (1901) whilst failing the various Conservatoire examinations. His failures seemed plain to the director: 'no chance, on account of the awful inaccuracies in writing!' Though expelled from the establishment in 1900, he was enrolled by Fauré as an unregistered student until 1905, thanks to what Koechlin called his 'fresh, bold harmonies'. His problems with the Conservatoire's leaders would go so far as to start a 'Ravel affair' when for the umpteenth time Ravel tried for the Prix de Rome in 1905, despite being disqualified by age... The jury had no hesitation in denouncing the young composer, already notorious in the capital, as being 'without any great musicality, a poor, beggarly writer'. The infamous thought ran through the societies: 'Monsieur Ravel may well consider us conservative; he won't get away with taking us for idiots.' However, he had already published his Pavane pour une infante défunte (1899), his Jeux d'eau (1901) and his String Quartet (1903). As for the art of revenge on the 'old fogeys'…the critic Jean Marnold summed it up: 'When you have heard Maurice Ravel's Quartet in F, you are not very surprised that the gang of pedants at the Institute would not give the Prix de Rome to this young artist'.

Ravel's String Quartet in F major is dedicated to his teacher, Gabriel Fauré. That is the first link between the two works on this disc. Though the start of Ravel' s career in chamber music has often been compared to that of Debussy, it must be said that the latter can stand alone. If such a comparison exists, let us also make one with Fauré, to whom he dedicated this quartet as follows: 'To my dear master Fauré'. About his own score, Ravel said, 'My Quartet in F results from an idea of musical construction, probably imperfectly realised, but which seems clearer than in my earlier compositions.' Written between December 1902 and April 1903, the Quartet in F was first performed in Paris on 5th March, 1904 by the Heyman Quartet at a société Nationale concert Published that same year by Astruc, the score was retouched by Ravel before its second publication in 1910. He had probably given too much importance to the remarks of his master who found the last movement 'truncated, ill-balanced and, in a nutshell, a failure', and that despite the appeals of Debussy, quite won to the young man's cause: 'In the name of all music's gods and for my sake, don't fiddle with anything you've written!'

In his work, Ravel was clearly inspired by the full essence of Fauréan feeling, yet he quickly freed himself by adopting his own idiom. In the opening Allegro moderato, in sonata form, one is absorbed in the intimate, delicate, sweet Ravelian atmosphere. All is delicateness and stylistic affectation, particularly in the two simple bars of the Très doux theme made up of a series of ascending quavers and crotchets which explode in the fifth bar: a theme with variations, which then returns to sink into a profoundly low register. Several repetitions of the latter introduce rhythmic excitement before we very quickly hear the second theme. The linking of the two, with a subtle alliance of keys (A and D minor) follows a classical pattern, here very well-treated. The treatment of the second movement, Assez vif, frankly recalls Debussy, with its lightness of line and the vibrant force of its writing. The airy use of pizzicato from the very first bars gives way to vigour, though never vulga, quite light and short-­skirted! Bien chanté, the second theme, is tinged with melancholy, introduced by the cello, filled out by the viola, then completed by the first violin. The movement ends with a furious scherzo with firm pizzicati. Next the Très lent entrusts to the viola (in F sharp major) the task of revealing its dreamy side. A hovering spirit takes over the bowing, without any great trace of ambiguity. We recognise here and there material used in the first movement. The final Vif et agité, in 5/8 then 5/4, synthesises the chief ideas of the first movement in the form of a last flourish. The bows scuttle on two successive levels, then pursue each other in soaring flights which Ravel treats frenetically in technically perfect semi-quavers and trills. An opportunity for virtuosity, but also for mischief, for calm sometime, far too obvious to be really believable…

In the Courrier Musical of 15th March, 1904, Sauerwein summed up Ravel and his quartet perfectly: 'He gradually breaks away from traditional methods and today brings us a rather new form of quartet. But it seems that some sort of antagonism sets him against himself, preventing him from making a clear choice between the very contrapuntal writing of the Franckists and Debussy's style of freer, bolder, but infinitely less polyphonic harmonic writing - hence more different from that usually associated with the quartet. However, those are rather theoretical reservations, applicable to the future of a form rather than to the present work. The freshness of inspiration, the themes, the confidence and the ever charming surprises of the details of development, are such in this quartet that on hearing it, one cannot but be carried away by it and that I defy you not to fall in love with it on first hearing'.

Gabriel Fauré's String Quartet in E minor, Op 121 is a swan song, an apotheosis for this old man of eighty years, born on 12th May, 1845 at Pamiers in the Ariége. The son of a primary school inspector, Fauré was sent very early to Paris to study with Louis Niedermeyer, then Saint-Saëns. Organist at Rennes in 1866, he successively held five organ posts in Paris from 1870 to 1896 before becoming a teacher at the Conservatoire, then its director in 1905. This courageous, pleasant-­looking man was to train such famous names as Enesco, Ducasse, Koechlin, Schmitt, Aubert and Nadia Boulanger, to name but a few. Losing his hearing, he had to resign as director in 1920, but continued to lead an active life as a writer of articles, but mainly as a composer. He was made a commander of the Légion d'honneur in 1910 and died on 4th November, 1924.

'I've started a quartet for strings, without piano. This is a genre made particularly famous by Beethoven, so that anyone who is not Beethoven is scared stiff of it!' wrote Fauré to his wife on 9th September, 1923. What better way to judge the modesty of an established composer faced with a noble genre…? Already coming to the end of his life, Fauré assessed this unacknowledged musical testament: 'As I moved on towards the conclusion, I increased my hours of work and I'm paying for it with a little tiredness. I can scarcely manage to write a few lines'. One would need many pages to give an account of the exciting genesis of this work, so much did Fauré put into it the best of himself... The Allegro moderato in 2/2 is in sonata form, a style dear to Fauré. The theme on the first violin is merged into a rending appeal from the viola in an atmosphere of melancholy, almost swaying. The first violin then sings its rising phrase of legato crotchets, so naïve, yet so detached. A re-exposition is sketched with the lip of the brush adding a touch of colour, then serious counterpoint and brightness in the final development…it all ending in a pianissimo. The Andante in 4/4 that follows found in Jean Michel Nectoux the ideal commentator: 'The Andante is one of the finest pieces of string quartet writing. From start to finish it bathes in a supernatural light… There is nothing that is not beautiful in this movement with its subtle variations of light-play, a sort of white upon white.' Is there more to be said? Unless 'The sublime music sinks out of sight, where it carries on, rather than seeming to come to an end' (Nectoux). Fauré uses the sonata form once more in his final 4/4 Allegro. The cello announces and develops the refrain over a pizzicato accompaniment, the whole thing being a cleverly disguised scherzo. The central development, bringing together ideas previously stated, takes up no fewer than 230 bars! Everything explodes in a sustained crescendo, 'light in nature, a sort of scherzo recalling the finale of my trio' in Fauré's own words. Jean Chantavoine, in Le Ménestrel, sums up in these words the sweetness rather than profundity of the work: 'One is rather following, holding one's breath, the meditation, ever so slightly abstract, of a pure mind'.

With common accord, in their own way, Ravel and Fauré both spoke out for pure invention, for renewal of inspiration: 'Where there is invention, there is genius'… (Fauré)

Stephan Perreau

Translation: Wil Gowans


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