Ravel Hough quartets hyperion

Stephen Hough (b. 1961)
String Quartet No. 1 ‘Les Six rencontres’ (2021)
Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013)
String Quartet ‘Ainsi la Nuit’ (1973)
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
String Quartet (1902)
Takács Quartet
rec. 2022 at Lone Tree Arts Center, USA
Hyperion CDA68400 [68]

The Debussy and Ravel string quartets are usually coupled together, but the Takács Quartet have a different approach. They recorded the Debussy quartet in 2015 and coupled it, unusually, with the Franck Piano Quintet, with Marc-André Hamelin as the pianist (review). Now they have reached the Ravel, and this time their programme is even more enterprising. They begin with the first string quartet – as yet there appears to be no second – of Stephen Hough, better known as a pianist – he has been called the thinking man’s virtuoso. In fact, he is not only a pianist but a composer with numerous compositions to his name, many of which have been recorded, and he is also a writer and even a painter – a truly versatile man.

It turns out that Hough’s quartet was written specifically to be programmed alongside the Dutilleux and the Ravel, so here we have the ideal setting for his new work. He says in a preface to the score that in putting his work alongside Dutilleux and Ravel he set out to explore ‘not so much what united their musical language but what was absent from them.’ He also intended the six movements of his work to have some relation to the group of composers known as Les Six, though there are no direct references to their works. The six movements all have French titles and are all both short and varied. The first movement, for example, titled ‘Au boulevard’ begins in a vigorous rather Tippett-like way and has a languorous theme as its middle section. The second movement, ‘Au parc,’ features an elegant melody over a pizzicato accompaniment foloowed by variations. ‘À l’hôtel’ is a kind of bitter-sweet dance which suddenly speeds up. ‘Au théâtre’ has which Hough calls ‘a skeleton of a motif’ which gets progressively gaudier as it progresses. ‘A l’église’ is a hymn and the final ‘Au marché’ is a moto perpetuo. The whole is a delightful and charming work.

Dutilleux’s string quartet is the best-known French quartet to be written since the Second World War, its only rival being Boulez’s Livre pour cordes. However, the Dutilleux has amassed far more recordings and become a staple of the quartet repertoire. It began life as a set of studies in different types of sonority achievable with strings, which the composer developed into the six movements of the final work. This is what might have given Hough the idea of a work in six movements, and Dutilleux in his turn might have taken the idea from Berg’s Lyric Suite, whose influence can be heard in the fifth of his six movements. The others are nicely varied, with the only other suggesting another composer being the fourth, which hails Bartók’s night music at some distance. As a whole the work shows Dutilleux’s wonderful ear for sounds and his careful craftsmanship. The Takács give it a convincing performance, which holds together the disparate movements.

So, to the Ravel, the most familiar work here. However, the Takács offer a much more full-blooded and orchestral interpretation than one usually hears. It appears that Ravel was himself concerned that the quartet might be too orchestral and was reassured about this by Debussy. I found it rather disconcerting at first but I have now got used to it and accept it as a legitimate interpretation, though it would not be the only version I would want in my library. However, we are spoilt for choice in this work with the old Quartetto Italiano and the more recent Quatuor Ébène being personal favourites.

The sleevenotes, by Nigel Simeone are helpful, and I have drawn on them in this review. The recording is fine. The whole makes an intriguing programme. Meanwhile we wait for Hough’s second string quartet.

Stephen Barber

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