Classical CD Reviews

SAINT-SAENS: Piano Quartet in B-flat Major; JONGEN: Piano Quartet in E-flat Major – Quatour Gabriel – Anima

Two relatively obscure Gallic masterworks in the piano quartet medium make bold display pieces for these musicians, graduates of the Conservatoire National de Musique de Paris.

Published on September 17, 2012

SAINT-SAENS: Piano Quartet in B-flat Major; JONGEN: Piano Quartet in E-flat Major – Quatour Gabriel – Anima

SAINT-SAENS: Piano Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 41; JONGEN: Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 23 – Quatour Gabriel – Anima ANM/081100002, 74:57 [Distr. by Albany] ****:

Quatour Gabriel (estab. 1988) takes its name in homage to Gabriel Faure, and the group has accrued a repertory of some fifty piano quartets. These inscriptions derive from sessions 28 and 31 July 2008.  Saint-Saens’ Quartet for strings and piano, Op. 41, of 1875 was composed during the same year that the composer wed the nineteen-year-old Marie-Laure Truffot and written just after his famous Danse macabre. Adhering to a traditional four-movement form set by his beloved Mozart, the Quartet combines a Classical clarity of form with the wide range of moods and textures that characterizes the Romantic ethos. The work’s opening, Allegretto, suggests the influence of both Beethoven and Schumann, though the elegant, placid, lyric figure in B-flat Major continually develops throughout the movement.

In contrast, the aggressive second movement, Allegro maestoso ma con moto, unfolds squarely in G minor, exhibits denser contrapuntal textures, a predominance of rhythm over melody. Dry staccato figures appear in the piano (Yoko Kaneko) at the beginning of the movement, accompanied by fierce interplay in the viola (Marc Desmons) and cello (Renaud Guieu). An austere Bach chorale appears in the movement by the strings in unison. The sec, austere approach to the upper string attacks (Francois Sochard )and the fugal treatment of the musical material  enhances a feeling of tightly controlled dramatic intensity.

Wonderful energy suffuses the D Minor Scherzo (6/8), rife with cadenzas for the violin and piano, respectively. Marked Poco allegro più tosto moderato, the sly, playful humor can sound menacing. This quicksilver motion captures Mendelssohn and foreshadows Brahms. A central lyrical major-key section in 2/4 meter culminates in the solo piano cadenza, which leads to the return of the movement’s main material, in D Minor, stated in progressively faster tempos (Molto allegro, Presto, Prestissimo) before it mischievously evaporates into a hushed conclusion, marked ppp.  The fourth movement, Allegro,  extends the D Minor of the preceding movement, introducing a syncopated restless theme that develops through the use of  two fugal episodes. Yoko Kaneko’s keyboard displays no end of digital facility, a quality that marked the composer’s own talents.  A light appears at the end of the Beethoven struggle, with a sudden shift to the tonic B-flat Major; then Saint-Saens’ innate cyclicism enters, in a glorious restatement of the first-movement theme that opened the Quartet. The second movement’s chorale reappears as well in a major key. The interplay and contrapuntal consolidation continue through the  work’s final pages, where B-flat Major emerges as a triumphantly bravura valediction.

Jongen’s ambitiously expansive Piano Quartet, Op. 23 is one of the works that he had to deliver after being awarded the Rome Prize in 1897 for his cantata Comala, Op.14. Jongen’s name today rests almost entirely on his large Symphonie concertante of 1926. This substantial Piano Quartet belongs to Jongen’s early maturity and remains indebted to Franck (especially) and d’Indy, while already slightly influenced by Fauré and Debussy. Jongen (1873-1953) displays his remarkable formal mastery as well as his rich melodic fund, although one must admit that the piece is not without longueurs. Jongen writes on a large scale, his idiomatic instrumental writing deft. The Piano Quartet is in four movements (Large-Animé, Assez vite, Pas trop lent and Assez animé) of which the second, a Scherzo redolent of some rustic dance (a typical Jongen trait), points clearly towards Jongen’s mature style. After a solemn and weighty introduction, the cello launches the Animé section of the first movement with a gorgeously lyrical theme offset by a calmer second subject out of the violin. The rest of the movement, roughly in sonata form, generously develops both themes, allowing cellist Guieu and pianist Kaneko their assorted interactions.

The imposing first movement has the lovely Scherzo (assez vite) ensue, the trio sections of which hearken to the second subject of the first movement. Francois Sochard and pianist Kaneko often sizzle in their respective parts. Well into the da capo the viola (Marc Desmons) adds a distinctive voice. The main theme of the beautifully lyrical slow movement (Pas trop lent), first stated by the viola, varies the main theme of the Scherzo. This slow movement plays as a long gracious song without words, warmly expansive but unsentimental. For those who enjoy such sophisticates’ party games, this movement would make an excellent piece of “guess whose style.” The sunny mood of the fourth movement ends the work in an exultant optimistic mood. In spite of some mannerisms, the Piano Quartet offers a splendid piece of music in its own right. The work’s dedicatee, by the way, is Vincent d’Indy. A delicious disc, the kudos go to sound engineer Jean-Martial Golaz.

—Gary Lemco




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