Admirers of the string quartets of Gabriel Fauré, Claude Debussy, and Maurice Ravel will be happy to discover the refined string quartets of Charles Koechlin, a contemporary of those composers who wrote in a rather similar vein. These attractive chamber works, like the rest of Koechlin's oeuvre, are quite obscure and had been unduly neglected until the Ardeo Quartet chose to record them for its debut CD on Ar Re-Se. The String Quartet No. 1 in D major, Op. 51, is dated 1911-1913, though it appears to have gestated since 1902, and the String Quartet No. 2, Op. 57, was mostly composed between 1911 and 1916, though its sketches show some material going back to 1909; both works therefore partake of musical styles developed between fin de siècle Impressionism and the later innovations of Erik Satie and Les Six, but these works reveal a stronger emphasis on the former. The sweet, placid music that flows in both quartets is balanced by some jaunty, folk-like elements and occasional flirtations with changing time signatures and polytonality, but the calm atmosphere of these quartets is largely undisturbed by the encroachments of modernism.
The Pavel Haas Quartet, one of the very finest chamber ensembles of the present time, earned for their first two CDs (Janáček, Pavel Haas) numerous prestigious accolades (Classic FM Gramophone Award, BBC Music Magazine Award, Cannes MIDEM Classical Award, etc.). With the Prokofiev pieces featured on this album the Quartet has for the first time entered the field of the Russian (or, if you will, international) repertoire.
Though a pupil of the great orchestrator Rimsky-Korsakov, and in turn a teacher to the likes of Rachmaninov, Glière, and Scriabin, Anton Arensky himself is a composer often forgotten when contemplating the Russian greats. Productive in many genres, it is perhaps in his chamber music that this unduly neglected composer truly shines. His writing has much of the same textural sophistication and melodic beauty as his close friend, Tchaikovsky. In fact, the theme on which the Second Quartet's Variations are based is drawn from a Tchaikovsky quartet. Performing Arensky's First and Second string quartets, along with the Piano Quintet, is the Ying Quartet. This ensemble's playing is characterized by a surprisingly precise, consistent uniformity of sound and exactness of articulation, making it seem as if a single instrument were playing as opposed to four independent parts. All aspects of their technical execution are polished and refined, which only enhances their equally enjoyable musical effusiveness, rich, deep tone, and understanding of Arensky's scores that casts them in the best possible light.
Dmitri Kabalevsky's music can be flippant, dramatic, ruminative or 'functional'; it can also be rhythmically and texturally complex (parts of the Second Quartet presented on this CD), or tuneful and primary-coloured (Third Piano Concerto and The Comedians ballet). And yet Kabalevsky has remained, at least for many Western listeners, something of a musical side-liner, a sort of soft-core Shostakovich whose very amiability vitiates against a more 'serious' reputation.