Friday, May 22, 2009

S.Q. Daily #10: Ravel String Quartet

S.Q. Daily: A Composer's Listening Journal

Day #10: Maurice Ravel
String Quartet, Op. 10

I'm out of town attending a friend's wedding, but thanks to the wonders of Blogger, you can enjoy this future-dated "Friday" post on schedule.

Day #10 of S.Q. Daily brings, if you've been counting, my ninth quartet review. (I didn't review one my first day.) My favorites so far have to be the Shostakovich #7, Bartók #4, and Debussy, with the Britten #2 close behind.

Ravel's String Quartet in F Major definitely ranks up there with the best of them. If you've got 30 minutes, give it a listen (Hagen Quartet on YouTube).

Ravel (Wiki) completed the work in 1903, at age 28. This work is so amazing it even has its own Wiki page. (For that matter, so does Debussy's.)

Ravel dedicated the work to his longtime teacher and friend Gabriel Fauré, whose own quartet we heard on Wednesday. (If you're into historical gossip, read up on the "Ravel Affair".)

Ravel likely modeled the work on Debussy's of a decade earlier, which makes perfect sense when you experience them in close proximity. Ravel's work also features prominent open fifths in the cello (check out Movement III), a focus on sighing melodies, and frequent "watery" gestures that form a nice aural corollary to watercolors.

To my ear, however, Ravel is a little more rhythmically active and punchy, particularly in the final movement's extended sections of 5/8 meter. He seems to be foreshadowing the disjunct, rustic energy found in early Stravinsky and virtually all Bartók. (I know, I know, they're only 7 and 6 years younger than Ravel, respectively, and I'm not claiming that he in particular influenced them.)

Like Fauré and Debussy before him, Ravel only wrote one quartet, and like Debussy (and somewhat less, Fauré), it is a staple in the quartet repertoire. One almost wishes Ravel had penned another later in life, but this gem certainly does the job.

Each movement is worth listening to, but I'll go ahead and recommend Movement II if you're in a hurry. It's uptempo and flashy, and features the same level of idiomatic writing and attention to color as the rest of the composition.

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Another reminder, the combined score to Debussy and Ravel's quartets can be had for $7.50 + S&H on Amazon.

The audio CD is $5.75 (Emerson Quartet) or $4.50 (Kodaly Quartet), or $8 for the Kodaly MP3 album download.

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