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Chausson began work on his String Quartet in 1897. He was working on it right up to the day he died (a bizarre bicycle accident en route to the railway station) in 1899, and it lay unfinished with the first two movements complete and majority of the third movement sketcked out. D'Indy, his best friend, loved the work so much that, with the encouragement of Chausson's family, he set about the task of completing the 3rd movement (allegedly Chausson planned a fourth movement) using Chausson's thorough sketches. After completion of the movement, the quartet was premiered on 27 January 1900, at the Société Nationale de Musique. The first movement, Grave-modéré, begins darkly with the cello. It's a conflicting movement in which Chausson quotes the opening to Debussy’s string quartet and there's more turbulent and dramatic passages but also pastoral and romantic writing. Here you can hear the influence of Franck in the music. The 2nd movement, Très calme, is lyrical and tender and a little underwhelming. Chausson again quotes another composer's work (Richard Wagner) by using the Tarnhelm theme from Das Rheingold and much here is fairly romantic . The finale, Gaiement pas trop vite, starts in march-like style. Whilst the music is more vibrant and breezy here this is certainly not joyous stuff and quite serious in nature but is certainly less dark than the 1st movement. Some commentators feel that it portrays a voyage, an adventure or a saga. The quartet was never a big hit with audiences (or me for that matter) but it is a decent, if not especially memorable, quartet that takes some time to get used to. I particularly like the 3rd movement but the whole quartet still feels incomplete to me (it lacks a true finale, IMO). Today it's rarely performed in concert. Quite a few recordings to go at, though.

Here's a live performance from the Teatro Real Quartet, as a taster.


Easily Recommended

Philharmonia Chamber Players
Ludwig
Parisii
Tartini
Schoenberg
Chilingirian

Highly recommended

Doric - there was a lot of hype about this one in the British press and whilst the playing is gorgeous and the ensemble/ intonation is perfect the recording is much too low and the the Doric are much too delicate for me, especially in the 3rd movement.
Gaggini - close, dry recording but a brisk and captivating effort with a greater sense of urgency and some lovely, expressive playing. Technically not as sound as some others but they thoroughly convinced me with their enthusiasm.
Spiegel - if a sweet tone is your desire this will leave you eminently satisfied. There's some delightful first violin playing and MDG's sound is its usual high quality.
Manfred - colour and texture are exquisite in this account. This is a reading rich in ensemble and articulation and with fine recorded sound.
Ensemble Cesar Franck - I held out little hope for this one (I've never heard of the ensemble) but the pacing, crisp lines and depth of sound thoroughly impressed me.
Quatuor Athenaeum-Enesco - as above, this group know how to pace this quartet and play out of their skins, giving me a huge surprise.

Top Pick

Via Nova (1970)
- over 50 years old but it beats the rest hands-down for me. The Via Nova aren't afraid to put a bit of backbone into Chausson's wishy-washiness and imbue every bar with strong phrasing. The analogue sound may not be as crystal clear as the newer recordings but the immediacy wins every time . Beauty and strength combined and a 3rd movement that leaves the opposition in its trail.
 
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