Monday, April 1, 2013

Spring Chamber Music in Bloom part 2

As well as the fiery Beethoven op. 95 quartet and the two Movements by Lucas Richman, two very essential quartets by Debussy and Borodin will be performed this coming Sunday. Although all of these quartets save for the Richman were written in the 19th century, they could not be more different in their individual styles.

The  Juilliard Quartet’s 1971 LP of the Debussy and Ravel string quartets was the only recording of the Debussy available at my local library when I was growing up. I literally wore out the Ravel side of the record. I was fascinated by the string quartet sound, the cool French harmonies, and the machine-like precision of the fast pizzicati. I have since found a copy of the disc in a Goodwill store somewhere, and now I am wearing out the Debussy side of it big time.

Debussy heard Indonesian Gamelan music for the first time at the World Exposition of Paris in 1889. (You are perhaps hearing Gamelan music for the first time here). The Gamelan’s percussive, layered and improvisatory nature is captured in the second movement, Assez vif et bien rhythmé. You can see from the video that a Gamelan is comprised of upwards of 25 members, so reformatting the sound down for four string quartet members is a neat trick. Debussy opened some new doors and set some new land speed records by calling for string players to pluck (pizzicato) extremely fast. Ravel also seemed inspired by the Gamelan in the second movement of his String Quartet ten years later. Indeed, the entire Ravel quartet seems to mirror Debussy’s in layout, pacing and mood. Other influences on Debussy’s music are Franck and Borodin. And wine.

Borodin’s String Quartet No. 2, from 1881, is a beloved work, and one melody from its sublime, third-movement Nocturne was commandeered by Robert Wright and George Forrest, re-emerging as And This Is My Beloved from the 1953 musical Kismet. (The second theme of the second movement is used in that show as the basis for the song Baubles, Bangles and Beads). What influenced Debussy in his quartet was undoubtedly the wavy accompanimental figures that pervade the faster movements of the Borodin.

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