Debussy String Quartet

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Published: 17th October, 2014

It may have been the ambience of the Collins Street Baptist Church or simply the idea of a Sunset Concert. In any case, there was a relaxed atmosphere and air of expectation from the good-sized audience for this concert by French visitors, the Debussy Quartet. Part of the Haydn for Everyone series, introduced by the Melbourne Festival last year, the series not only celebrates the composer Franz Joseph Haydn but also the string quartet itself.

The program comprised:

Haydn String quartet No 60 Op 76 No 1

Pécou String quartet ‘Fuga del Son’

Debussy String quartet Op 10

It was appropriate to begin with music of Haydn, on this occasion his String quartet No 60 Op 76 No 1. After three emphatic notes to begin, the quartet settled into a balanced counterpoint, with ornamentation in the Classic style. The balance was maintained throughout the first movement, Allegro con spirito, with a unanimous feeling for volume, tempo and frequent repeated notes (which could so easily be the undoing of a lesser ensemble).

The Adagio sostenuto that followed had all the solemnity and sweetness that one might have called Beethoven-esque – except that Haydn’s greater exposure in recent times has revealed these characteristics in so many of his works too. The first violin’s lovely melodic line was supported by the other three players before some interesting syncopated passages; there followed a reprise of the theme and a satisfyingly full conclusion to the movement. The Menuetto was both short and spirited, this time with the first violin supported by a pizzicato accompaniment.
Finale might seem a rather grand name for a movement in a string quartet, but it was justified by the quite complex development that followed the unison opening statement. Crisp runs wove into the rich harmonic texture and fast fingerwork was called for, especially at one point from the cello. A brief move to a minor key, crisp ornaments and a lilting short coda and a return to the emphatic chords of the opening rounded off the quartet in style.

The quartet had proved its mastery of the Classic style but literally had more strings to its bow, or rather strings without bows, and went to fetch different instruments for the second work, as presenter Marshall McGuire explained to the audience. The String quartet “Fuga del Son” commissioned from Thierry Pecou in 2012, shows the composer’s belief that rhythmic polyphony of great complexity evolved in Cuba. In Pecou’s words, his work features “open strings employing a rich palette of percussive playing techniques recreating the different types of drumming attacks.”

The effect was exciting but, as a fellow-reviewer rightly observed to me, “not something you’d want to do on your Strad!” The odd whishing sound that opened the work was effected by the use of a plectrum and led almost immediately into a strong pizzicato sound from the violins and viola, “grounded” by the cello. It was hard to distinguish a structure or even a tune (not surprisingly, given the absence of bows) but the dynamics and rhythms provided sufficient interest, as did the more prominent leadership role taken by the viola.

What was remarkable was how smoothly the performers reverted to the conventional pattern and sound of a string quartet as they settled down with their main instruments (complete with bows!) for the final work, Debussy’s String quartet Op 10.

It was interesting that the Romantic music sounded older than it was, after the Pecou. The quartet soon settled to exploring the theme with a satisfying balance of sound so the first violin could be appreciated but also needed the others, with a rich resonance from all and perfect timing for the runs together. In the second movement the second violin had a great pizzicato with the others eventually joining him – so it proved an apt follow-on from the previous quartet.

But in the third, the music was “dreamy”, if not hypnotic, with clear mastery of the score – this is after all the Debussy Quartet! The complexity is never at the expense of musicality which is sensuous and so seamless it can be hard to tell which instrument is playing. The unity and sense of purpose between these players is extraordinary as phrases overlap and tempo changes in a complex pattern and the slow sweet theme keeps asserting itself. Finally, a series of strong chords was thrilling and towards the end the music seemed to be reaching for the stars until the last great notes signalled the end of a very pleasing Sunset concert.