On a dreary Sunday afternoon a very nice audience assembled at the North Carolina Museum of Art for the Sights & Sounds on Sunday series to hear the French string quartet Quatuor Stanislas with two American colleagues perform a program of Ravel and Brahms. The program opened with two works by Ravel; the familiar String Quartet in F Major, and the less-familiar Sonata for Violin and Cello. Then, all six musicians came together for the final work, Brahms' String Sextet in G Major, Op. 36.
Ravel began his only String Quartet while still a student at the Conservatoire. It was completed in 1902-03 and reflects, but does not mimic, much of Debussy's G minor Quartet (also his only String Quartet) which was composed about ten years earlier and had a powerful influence on Ravel. It captures the same luminescent impressionist quality and calls upon a similar rich palette of subtle colors. It also bears witness to Ravel's love of Mozart and fondness for the music of the past and his fascination with Far Eastern sounds. The four Frenchmen who form Quatuor Stanislas (Laurent Causse and Bertrand Menut, violins, Paul Fenton, viola and Jean de Spengler, cello) obviously know this music well. They played with a balanced ensemble and zeal that etched the transparent craftsmanship of the young Ravel deep into the imagination. I kept seeing, in my mind's eye, a sort of pliable, yet liquid silvery metal that kept taking new and fascinating shapes. The first movement, of four, marked Très doux was indeed sweet (not saccharine), lilting like an Auvergne shepherd's love song. The second movement, mostly pizzicato, was crisp precise and a rhythmic delight. The slow movement addresses some of the themes of the first two movements, developing them along with new material. The boisterous finale plunged straight into a frantic 5/4 meter fray, lightened up in the middle, and then ended in a blaze. Quatuor Stanislas did it right! Their sound was rich and wonderfully detailed, and their sense of the music's spaciousness and liveliness was quite wondrous.
Two North Carolina artists who have enjoyed a 12-year collaboration with Quatuor Stanislas were to join the quartet for the Brahms sextet, but first performed their own dazzling contribution. John Fadial, concert-master of the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra and Beth Vanderborgh, principal cellist of both the Greensboro and Winston-Salem Symphony Orchestras, chose Ravel's Sonata for Violin and Cello, composed between 1920 and 1922. It called to mind in my ear some of the effects of his 1902 piano piece, "Jeux d'eau." Lacking the harmonic foundation of piano accompaniment, the combination of instruments offers interesting timbres and unfamiliar sonorities. The silvery violin sound and the rich cello resonance, rather than blending, provided interplay and implied harmonies. Much of the piece was playful with rhythms suggestive of a child skipping or playing a game of chase. The music is so challenging that the violinist who premiered the piece chided Ravel, "It must be fun writing such difficult stuff, but no one's going to play it except virtuosos." Ravel smiled, "Good! Then I shan't be assassinated by amateurs." Fadial and Vanderborgh handled it with accomplished skill, with the added pleasure of Vanderbough's visible facial delight in the piece.
Johannes Brahms' Second String Sextet is certainly some of his finest music. It was conceived as a study of his ladylove Agathe von Siebold and was, it seems, a cathartic exercise not completed till some five years after their break-up (when Brahms was 27). Like much of Brahms' mature music it is characterized by great compositional subtlety and organic cohesion. It employs both rhythm and musical notation from the notes A-G-A-H-E (H being B natural, with T discarded.)
The first movement begins like a rush of wind then develops the "Agathe" motto as well as a rhythmic motif at the end of the opening theme that suggests the syllabic stress of the name when spoken. The second movement could double as a Hungarian Rhapsody with two lively dances embracing a calmer, stately one. The Poco Adagio slow movement calls forth the sweet aroma and gorgeous color of a flower garden in spring bloom. The lovely melody sounding from the violins and violas was almost overwhelmingly passionate. The last movement returned to the lively gypsy dance mode, a chase sequence leading up to a vivacious and most satisfying conclusion.
As well played as was the Ravel quartet earlier, this was even richer with impeccable ensemble, rhythmic precision, technical expertise and expansive, passionate musicianship. Gorgeous music, exquisitely performed, and I do not believe I have overdone the superlatives.
The next offering of the RCMG will be the Masters Series presentation of The Young Eight Sunday, October 22, 3:00 pm at the Fletcher Opera Theater, Progress Energy Center, featuring Mendelssohn's extraordinary String Octet.