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Ernest CHAUSSON (1855-1899)
Quartet in C minor, Op 35 (1899, unfinished) [27:12]
Marc GUETTIER (b. 1931)
Quartet in A (2000) [24:24]
Guillaume Plays (violin), Cyril Garac (violin), Marc Desmons (viola), Jérôme Pinget (cello)
rec. December 2003, location not provided
AMESON ASCP0508 [51:04]

The practice of piggybacking a modernist piece onto one by an established composer looks like a good marketing idea, but is probably doomed to satisfy nobody. The listener intrepid enough to try something new may be irritated at getting, say, yet another Schumann or Sibelius concerto, while those allergic to "new music" in any form are apt to give such a program a wide berth. On this album, however, it's the work by the unfamiliar composer that makes the more favorable impression!

The Paris-trained violinist-composer Marc Guettier's quartet, according to the booklet, is his "major work" in a small catalogue. Guettier seems to have had the Debussy quartet in mind while he was writing it. There's a thematic kinship between the first movement's wandering main theme and Debussy's, and a stylistic one between the two sprightly scherzos. But the strongest resemblance is in the overall aesthetic. Guettier, like Debussy, uses advanced harmonies and irregular stressing – note the scherzo's hemiolas – to generate instability; yet, as with the older composer, the music leaves a poised, serene impression. The effect is of an appealing emulation, rather than flat-out imitation.

The unified phrasing and well-balanced, full-bodied sonority of the ad hoc quartet assembled here make as strong a case for the piece as one might wish. Guettier's hommage, forging a distinctive voice from an older idiom, would certainly prove as worthy a discmate to the Debussy and Ravel quartets – a logical, not to say reflexive, LP coupling that has persisted into the digital era – as some of the odd choices that have been tried.

Chausson certainly qualifies as an Established Composer – if not necessarily a Great one – but the three extant movements of an incomplete string quartet, at least in this rendition, don't show him at his best. The composer's post-Wagnerian harmonies effectively project restlessness – very "horizontal" in the French manner, where Wagner used them "vertically" – but they sit less comfortably on the sparer textures of a string quartet than they do on the full orchestra. And while the central Très calme movement gets a full-bodied performance, execution is less assured in the two bracketing movements. The players clearly understand the broad, arching phrases, but in the scurrying writing they can't find the time to give each note full tone, or to ensure they all speak dead center on the pitches.

Still, these things may matter less for some listeners, who will be happy to discover a "new" work by Chausson. And the Guettier is worth hearing. It's your call.

Stephen Francis Vasta



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