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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
String Quartet in D major, Op. 18, No. 3 (1798 -1800) [27:42]
Jean CRAS (1879-1932)
String Quartet 'À ma Bretagne’ (1909) [39:59]
Quatuor Midi-Minuit
rec. 2018, Salle Orphée de la Seine Musicale, Boulogne-Billancourt, France

Founded in 2016, this is the Quatuor Midi-Minuit’s debut recording. Beethoven and Cras, on the surface, may seem unlikely bedfellows, yet there is a logic in the ensemble’s choice as will be revealed. It’s the Jean Cras Quartet which provides the greatest interest for me; rarely performed or recorded it is deserving of greater recognition.

Jean Cras, a contemporary of Debussy and Ravel, shared a career at sea with such composers as Albert Roussel and Antoine Mariotte. He rose through the ranks, becoming rear admiral and commander-in-chief of the French Navy in Brest in 1920. Exotic locations and multifarious cultures were an integral part of his travels, and these he miraculously crafted into his music. Although Henri Duparc and César Franck provided models, much of his music has a Ravelian flavour in its refined harmonies and myriad hues. Having been born in Brest, and never forgetting his origins, he constantly drew on Breton folklore, skilfully drafting its songs and dances into his scores. Aside from the String quartet, his chamber music includes three early sonatas for violin, viola and cello with piano, two string trios, a piano trio, a piano quintet and the harp quintet. He himself said, “I have always preferred chamber music and always will”.

At the age of thirty Cras penned his sole String Quartet. A link with Beethoven is established in the four movement Classical-Romantic mould. Duparc had given the composer a volume of the Beethoven string quartets, and these he studied on his many voyages. Much of the work, titled À ma Bretagne' is introspective and sombre. Even the more sprightly third movement, a sort of scherzo, seems to have unsettling undercurrents. We have to wait until the finale for the mood to lighten and take on a more upbeat feel. The work’s rich chromatic harmonies are immensely appealing.

Beethoven’s String Quartet in D major, Op. 18, No. 3 sits well with the Cras in that it provides a satisfying contrast. The mood is genial, bright, easy-going and, at times, humorous, with just the slow movement adding a hint of poignancy. The six Op. 18 String Quartets were a commission from Prince Lobkowitz, who paid the composer 200 florins for the set in October 1799. They were published in 1801. No. 3 was actually the first of the six to be composed. The opening movement is gentle and relaxed. In the Andante peace and serenity surrender to profundity. An Allegro follows, something a cross between a minuet and a scherzo and then comes a finale full of light-hearted humour. The Quatuor Midi-Minuit fully capture the warmth and affability of the work, in a performance which is technically flawless and musically satisfying.

Beautifully recorded in a warm, intimate acoustic, this debut is an unqualified success. The Quatuor Midi-Minuit’s committed performances and infectious enthusiasm have certainly won me over. I hope we’ll be hearing more from them very soon.

Stephen Greenbank

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