Boundless Beauty: String Quartets by Debussy and Ravel United in New Album

Noam Ben-Zeev
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The Talich Quartet. The Czech ensemble’s new recording is a pleasure to listen to.Credit: Bernard Martinez / La Dolce Volta
Noam Ben-Zeev

Thirteen years separate the birth of Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). Both lived in the same era, acquired their musical education in Paris and fomented 20th-century modernism in music. Both were perceived as “Impressionists,” particularly Debussy, though he objected to being thus categorized. Seen from a distance – a very great distance – there is a considerable similarity between the style of the two composers and the genres they favored, as their string quartets show.

Ravel took Debussy’s string quartet as the model for his own, and its structure is almost a copy of its predecessor: four movements, as in every classical quartet, their form drawing on the classic musical structures. And, as was the custom in the second half of the 19th century, both works also adopt a cyclical pattern, in which motifs and themes from the first movement resonate in the other movements, especially the last. In this manner the work is united into a whole, in the spirit of the Romantic passion to create worlds.

Still, even a quick zoom-in on Debussy and Ravel reveals how different they are, how divergent the spirit that animates each of them; and how, despite the ostensible Frenchness and the ostensible impressionism attributed to them, despite the pervasive influence of the Far East in their work, and despite the modernist thrust of their music, attesting to their abandonment of the Classical-Romantic tradition – despite all this, there’s no confusing them: all it takes is one or two chords to identify each of them.

“The Adventure and Achievement of Debussy” is the title of the first chapter in William Austin’s marvelous book, now almost half a century old, on music in the 20th century. Indeed, “adventure” is an apt word for Debussy, for his works were composed on the brink of the 20th century. In 1892-93, while composing the string quartet, he was also at work on “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” a work that paved strikingly bold paths to the new music. And “adventure” is also the right word for his string quartet. Debussy titled it “String Quartet No. 1,” in G minor, though he had no second quartet in mind, and it continues to be known by that name even though it is the composer’s only string quartet.

Tempestuous chapter

Indeed, the “G minor” label also needs to be qualified, in regard to both harmonics and tonality. The quartet displays a pioneering rebellion against the tonal forces of gravity and shuns as well as it can chords that generate the syntax of a drama fraught with tension and release, a thrust toward a climax followed by a resolution, conflicts and catharses and a return home to the tonic. That musical structure began to crumble in the 19th century, when drama and plot were weakened in favor of gestures of emotion and sound colors; and the 20th century, of which Debussy was one of the forerunners with works such as his string quartet, severed that connection completely.

In his string quartet, Debussy draws on reservoirs of sounds that blur the tonal drama and can no longer be described as “scale of G minor” – for example, a reservoir known as a “whole tone scale” – and in this he is definitely a kindred spirit with the Impressionist painters of his generation. They too blurred and befogged the image, preferring effects of color and abstract form, and their style was very delicate. Debussy, for his part, weakened the chief element of Classical-Romantic music, namely its pitch, from which derived phenomena such as melody, form and drama, and in its place emphasized other elements, such as new orchestral phrases and effects – effects also perceived as “tone colors.” The quartet’s essence is a sound of unrivaled delicacy, like shimmering lace.

At the same time, he did not abandon melody, and as in Ravel’s quartet exactly a decade later, the Debussy work is also alive with a multitude of sweet melodies. Ravel’s melodies are different, their contours clearer and sharper. Beyond this, the technique in Ravel’s quartet is far more sophisticated than that of his predecessor. This is a work of ensemble virtuosity and truly astonishing effects, such as in the final movement, and Ravel’s quartet is less impressionistic than Debussy’s, wilder, more precise.

Above all, though, there is the beauty. Both quartets constitute another tempestuous chapter in the history of the string quartet. Today, when we are clever and all-knowing, the knowledge of the repertoire of the post-Debussy and post-Ravel quartets – Bartok, Shostakovich, Penderecki, Steve Reich – augments the appreciation and love for the two forerunners. The boundless beauty of the string quartets by Debussy and Ravel has given rise to dozens of records and CDs that combine the two by leading string quartets, including the Alben Berg, Tokyo, Juilliard, Orpheus and others. The enhanced-CD album under review here is by the Prague-based Talich Quartet. On their 18th- and 19th-century instruments, the veteran quartet, founded in 1964, plays the two works on a recording that is a pleasure to listen to, with its clean sound – which is perhaps a tad too polished – and the expressive character of the impressionistic sound coloration and emotionality.

“Debussy – Ravel / String Quartets,” Talich Quartet: Jan Talich and Roman Patocka, violins; Vladimir Bukac, viola; Petr Prause, cello; La Dolce Volta label, May 2015 (HD)