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Arcanto Quartet's French Album

available at Amazon
Ravel / Debussy / Dutilleux
Arcanto Quartet

(released on September 14, 2010)
HMC 902067 | 71'19"

Online scores:
Debussy, String Quartet, op. 10
Ravel, String Quartet in F Major
The Arcanto Quartet may not be on the radar screens of American listeners yet: indeed, the group is making their first North American tour this month, including a stop next week at the Library of Congress (October 13, 8 pm). It is a quartet formed by four friends who all had careers as solo musicians: as Jean-Guihen Queyras told Jens Laurson in a recent interview, "It’s so sad that because we have other occupations and because we can’t enter the monastic life of a quartet, we are going right past that absolutely amazing and unequaled repertoire ... the quintessence of string writing by most composers has been for string quartet." So the cellist and his friend, violist Tabea Zimmermann, joined with two violinists, Antje Weithaas and Daniel Sepec, for the first concert in 2002. Queyras observes, "The way we choose our repertoire [is] everyone puts a name on the wish list and then we see, as the opportunities come along, to add a piece to the repertoire."

Their latest disc is a selection of three string quartets by 20th-century French masters -- Debussy (the quartet actually dates from the 1890s), Dutilleux (1977), and Ravel (1904). Even Queyras himself calls that combination "the usual suspects," adding that "It’s been done a few times, but we just wanted to do it so..." Certainly, the Ravel and Debussy have been extensively recorded, including recently reviewed performances by the Quatuor Ébène (Debussy and Ravel combined with Fauré), the Quatuor Diotima (Ravel with modern music), the Daedalus Quartet (Ravel with Sibelius and Stravinsky), and most impressively the Cuarteto Casals (Ravel combined superbly with Spanish repertoire). The Arcanto's interpretation of all three works is superlative, with nothing wilting or pale about the Debussy quartet, even the "sweetly expressive" third movement characterized by a murmuring intensity and folksong naïveté. Their Ravel is, by contrast, rarefied and translucent, with an admirable ensemble fluidity in tempo, giving the sense of four individually gifted musicians all vibrating at the same frequency.

If you have already acted on our many recommendations of the Debussy/Ravel disc by the Quatuor Ébène, there is probably no reason to add this disc to your collection (I am equally seduced by both groups' interpretations of both quartets), except for the really fine performance of Henri Dutilleux's Ainsi la nuit. Neither performance of this seven-movement dissonant study of the sounds of night reviewed up to this point -- by the Jupiter Quartet and the Kennedy Center Chamber Players -- has been entirely convincing. The Arcanto, by contrast, presents the work's most sympathetic, diverting face, a reflection of what Queyras has said about why one should program contemporary music, not "because it is in fashion or because it looks good in a program," but because you really need to play it and hear it. Before you buy, you can always listen to the group live next week at the Library of Congress: their program includes the Ravel quartet, as well as Mozart's K. 421 (who knows what to expect?) and Bartók's fifth quartet. The latter is on the Arcanto's first recording, of the Hungarian composer's fifth and sixth quartets, by all accounts also a remarkable disc.

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