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The Fine Arts Quartet' albums of Mendelssohn' String Quintets and Glazunov' chamber music were named "Recordings of the Year" by Musicweb International, and their recording of Schumann' string quartets was hailed by the American Record Guide as "one of
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Despite having already written a good deal of chamber music, Op. 112 was Saint-Saëns' first foray into the medium of the string quartet. These are both mature works, written when he was in his sixties and eighties respectively; the second, in particular, exudes the melancholy nostalgia associated with old age. His love of Bach and Mendelssohn is manifested in the frequent archaic and neo-classical allusions in his music and a love of the fugue, a favourite form which appears several time at different points in these works. Yet Saint-Saëns' sound-world is clearly not entirely retrospective; it contains many Impressionistic touches, unsurprising from a composer whose career spanned the mid nineteenth century to the early twentieth.
The E minor quartet begins in a melancholy vein, sombre and formal; there is always a note of anxiety throughout. The second movement calls for some superbly articulated triplets in the restatement of the principal theme. The Molto adagio is dominated by the singing of the first violin, presumably in homage to the dedicatee Eugène Ysaÿe. Played as well as it is here, this movement seems to match the poise and tenderness of the Beethoven Cavatina; there is the same sense of time suspended. In a more agitated passage a tentative, stuttering syncopated figure alternates with the slow theme before they resolve into the spacious calm of the concluding two minutes. Finally, the mood of agitation returns in the last movement which closes uneasily with a frantic passage for the violin.
I have seen the Op.153 described as "a sunny, playful work" but that is really only half the story. It opens in neo-classical, Mozartian vein: momentum and elegance in a serene G major with some arresting shifts of key. The slow movement employs some exotic melody and harmony, perhaps the result of the composer's familiarity with North Africa. It contains another serene cantabile dryly described by the composer with his typical wit as "deadly dull as an Adagio should be"; it is in fact teasingly beautiful, featuring towards the end little spiralling, descending curlicue figures on the first violin suggestive of acceptance and resignation. After the slow, contemplative introductory Interlude, so typical of Saint-Saëns' classical period forebears, cheerful, scampering fugal passages alternate with the reflective slow theme to close emphatically in a witty combination of plucked fifths and ascending chords, ending on the tonic.
The Fine Arts Quartet is equal to all Saint-Saëns' demands for swift changes of mood and technical virtuosity. I have little to say about the quality of their playing beyond observing that to my ears they are impeccable, producing singing tone and unfailing homogeneity; I could not imagine finer advocacy of these neglected quartets. They are not easy listening but repeated encounters will, I am sure, pay dividends to the dedicated chamber music enthusiast.
The quartets are serious, autumnal works. They make great use of changes in tempo and mood within movements, of changes in harmonies and textures, and of fugue. The music is tonal and melodic and will reward repeated hearing.
Saint-Saens wrote his string quartet no. 1 in e minor, op. 112, in 1899 at the age of 64. The four-movement work was dedicated to the famous violinist Eugene Ysaye, and it features a prominent, soaring line for the first violin. The music is broadly romantic and tragic, as befitting the use of the minor key. The lengthy opening allegro features the use of hushed, muted tones and contrasting slower and faster sections. The first violin has the lead with a repeated wailing, extended theme. The second movement is a scherzo in which the first violin again is predominant with a short syncopated theme. This movement contrasts the scherzo theme with a fugual trio. The movement includes a slow, deeply meditative passage just before the end. The third movement is a slow, highly introspective adagio which owes a great deal to the slow movements of Beethoven's late string quartets but with long, singing cadenza-like themes for solo violin. The finale moves rather deliberately and seriously until it comes to a stop followed by a whirlwind, passionate conclusion. On the whole, the work is a lush, late romantic quartet.
It is unusual to think of Saint-Saens as a Twentieth Century composer, but his life overlapped the lives of Faure, Debussy, and Ravel. Saint-Saens composed the three-movement string quartet no. 2 in G major, op. 153 in 1918, when he was in his 80's. I found this quartet much more reserved, drier, and classical in style than the first quartet. Although some of the comments I have read, including that of Ralph Evans, the first violin of the Fine Arts Quartet, express surprise that this work was composed late in Saint-Saens' life, to me this quartet seemed clearly the work of an older composer looking back with nostalgia at his youth and at an earlier time. Thus, Saint-Saens described the opening "Allegro animato" as "Youth"; but, if so, it is the work of an elderly man revisiting being young. The movement with its rhythmic theme and mostly spare texture is reflective in character. The lengthy middle slow movement varies between two slow tempos -- an opening molto adagio and a slightly faster andantino, which appear and get developed alternately and with increasing intensity. Saint-Saens said that this movement was a lament for the loss of the youth that he endeavored to capture in the opening movement. The finale of the work begins with a slow, sad introduction, marked "interlude" which works into a lively, but still spare and bittersweet conclusion which features both plucked strings and open strings.
The Fine Arts Quartet has always had a place in my heart because I had my first exposure to live quartet music in their performances at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee more than fifty years ago. The current ensemble consists of Ralph Evans and Efim Boico, violins, Nicolo Eugelmi, viola, and Wolfgang Laufer, cello; Evans Boico and Laufer have played together in the ensemble for more than 30 years. This is a venerable group indeed and the quartet plays together with large tone, unity, and passion. In a recent interview for Naxos, first violinist Evans described the group's romantic style of playing with large use of portamento (sliding from one tone to another), vibrato, rhythmic flexibility and rubato, and a singing tone. Evans said "The Fine Arts Quartet may be unique these days because for better or worse we play in a style that reflects the 'old-fashioned' style." This style matches beautifully with the Saint-Saens quartets in this recording.
It is always a joy for me to remember and revisit the Fine Arts Quartet. This visit to a familiar, much-loved quartet taught me to enjoy music new to me -- the string quartets of Saint-Saens.
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