I recently reviewed a CD from Atma Classique of the complete string quartets by György Kurtág (review). They were given thrilling performances by the Canadian Quatuor Molinari. Having an inquisitive mind and always eager to delve into the music of less-well-known composers, I was eager to explore their new release of the complete string quartets of Jean Papineau-Couture, a name I’ve never come across before. He hailed from Montreal and was the grandson of conductor and composer Guillaume Couture. He started learning the piano, but soon realized he had a strong inclination to compose. A government grant enabled him to relocate to Boston, USA to study composition with Quincy Porter and piano with Beveridge Webster at the New England Conservatory. A year later he joined Nadia Boulanger’s class at the Longy School of Music, also in Boston. An encounter with Igor Stravinsky proved decisive, as the older composer was to have a profound influence on the young man’s later music. In 1945 Papineau-Couture returned to Québec, immersing himself in academia: he joined the faculty of the Conservatoire de musique du Québec à Montréal and later taught in the Faculty of Music at the Université de Montréal becoming vice-dean in 1967 and dean in 1968 until 1973. He achieved many prestigious awards along the way.
Throughout his compositional career, Papineau-Couture’s style changed markedly. His early works show the influence of French composers of the early twentieth century, with their neo-classical bent having echoes of Poulenc and Stravinsky. As he developed, he was careful to avoid serialism, instead embracing chromaticism, but without systematizing the twelve semitones of the octave. He turned to the writings of Paul Hindemith for inspiration and, with time, his music became more sparsely textured. A traversal of the four quartets, spanning the years 1953-1996, offers an overview of this evolution.
The String Quartet No. 1 bears a dedication to the Spivak Quartet, who premiered it in December 1953. Scored in two contrasting movements, the first is melancholic in mood, and it's underlying solemn tread gives it a weighed-down feeling. Things lighten up in the movement which follows, with its spiky, neo-classical rhythm and buoyant pace. When the composer came to write his Second Quartet, fourteen years later, he had come a long way compositionally. Dedicated to his teacher Nadia Boulanger, it is fashioned in four movements. I was amazed how daring the harmonies have become, and how dissonant sounding it is. The string effects are very potent, with harmonics and glissandi adding some ravishing colour. It calls for formidable technical skill from the players; the Quatuor Molinari meet the challenges head-on with breathtaking virtuosity. Stravinsky shows his hand in the second movement, the down-bow ostinatos very reminiscent of The Rite of Spring. The strumming pizzicatos in the third movement are very engaging.
Quartets 3 and 4 are one-movement designs. No. 3 dates from 1996, and was premiered that same year by the Morency Quartet. There's an awareness that the composer is breaking new ground, as there's a sparseness not heard in the previous quartets. Two-voice combinations and 'brief solo excursions' all help lighten the texture. The work anticipates the Fourth Quartet, which was only discovered in 2016 amongst papers donated to the Québec branch of the Canadian Music Centre by the composer's daughter. Again, leanness is a feature, with the contrapuntal writing impressively accomplished.
The Slanò String Trio, composed in 1975 and premiered a year later by the Stradivarius Trio, garnered much critical acclaim at its inception. Again a one movement work, Papineau-Couture explores instrumental colour, utilizing shimmering tremolos, glissandi and pizzicatos.
The Quatuor Molinari was founded in 1997 by its first violinist Olga Ranzenhofer. It takes its name from the Canadian abstract artist Guido Molinari. Based in Montreal, their focus is on performing twentieth and twenty-first century music, commissioning new works and programming their native composers. They are served well in terms of sound and balance, with the acoustic of the Église Saint-Augustin sympathetic to clarity of instrumental lines.
All told, these attractive quartets are given stylishly and vital performances. They are an immensely rewarding discovery.