Wednesday 28 March 2012

Quatuor Psophos at the Institut Francais

The Institut Francais in South Ken has been developing a rather interesting concert season with monthly concerts in their cinema auditorium. This season has included a group of concerts exploring the full gamut of French music with each concert concentrating on one area. In February there was a recital of French song from Faure to Poulenc and in May there is chamber music by Boulez, Grisey and Messiaen.

On 27 March the Quatuor Psophos presented a programme of French string quartets, those by Debussy, Chausson and Ravel. The Quatuor Psophos (Eric Lacrouts, Laurent Manaud-Pallas, Cecile Grassi and Guillaume Martigne) was formed in 1997 at the Lyon Conservatoire and they have been BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists. The line-up as given above, which appeared on 27 March, differs from the group's publicity so I am not sure whether Laurent Manaud-Pallas is a new member or a temporary replacement for Bleuenn le Maitre).

The figure of Cesar Franck rather hung over the programme. The premiere of his quartet in 1890 prompted Debussy to venture into the realms of chamber music. Debussy's quartet was premiered in 1893. His friend, and pupil of Cesar Franck, Ernest Chausson was working on his quartet when he died in 1899 so it was left to another Franck pupil, Vincent D'Indy to complete the final surviving movement. Ravel's quartet of 1903 was in fact more directly inspired by Debussy's quartet than Franck.

In the Debussy the Quatuor Psophos brought out the tension between the restless elements and the lyric beauty of the melodic lines, a pull between freedom and control. Their opening movement had moments of almost coital ecstasy. In the mysterious 3rd movement they showed fine control and created a magical ending, the magic only to be broken by applause from the audience and the plunge into restless final movement.

To describe Chausson's quartet as neo-classical would be wrong, but the serious, closely organised discipline which he learned from Franck rather showed and the work was in strong contrast to the impressionistic flights of Debussy's quartet. The intense prelude led to a lyrical first movement which became increasingly restless, whilst remaining more firmly anchored than the 1st movement of Debussy's quartet. The 2nd movement was serious and lyrical with the Quatuor Psophos giving us another magical ending. The 3rd and final movement was a rather serious scherzo with a rather weighty dramatic ending, which might owe more to D'Indy's need to have a final gesture than Chausson's original intentions assuming that the work was meant to have 4 movements.

With Ravel we were in a world of poise and elegance, but one with undercurrents of drama, storms which quickly arrived and just as quickly left. The Quatuor Psophos's response to the music was dramatic and quicksilver with a fine interplay between the players. The 2nd movement with its array of plucked and bowed textures taxed the players but they generated an intense performance. They created moments of ethereal beauty in the 3rd movement but brought out the strange undercurrents of the work, taking the dramatic flurries of notes in the last movement to create a brilliant finish. Their playing was not perhaps quite as effortless as it could have been, but their intense concentration on the work brought the piece to life.

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