Lucien Durosoir: String Quartets Nos. 1-3

Quatuor Diotima (Alpha (ALPHA125))

3 November 2008 4 stars

Durosoir Quartets'I am going to make an enthusiastic report to all my friends about your quartet, which I find thousands of times more interesting than everything that springs from the pens of the noisy groups of newcomers that now assails us.'

These were the words with which the acclaimed French composer and conductor André Caplet heralded Lucien Durosoir's String Quartet No. 1 in F minor (1919-20). A highly-regarded concert violinist before 1914 (he gave the French premieres of concertos by Brahms, Strauss and Gade, having studied the instrument with Joachim), Durosoir (1878-1955) dedicated the vast majority of his post-war years to composition. He lived away from Paris, and thus was relatively independent of compositional trends and developments in one of Europe's most influential musical capitals ('Les Six' were rising to prominence at around the same time in Montparnasse, crowned with their collective epithet in 1923).

This notion of individualism – vehemently presented by the composer's musicologist daughter-in-law Georgie Durosoir in her edifying booklet notes – is, essentially, the selling point of this disc. Characterised by concentrated and passionate counterpoint, taut thematic structural integrity, rhythmic ambiguity, and harmonies that oscillate between tonality and atonality, these string quartets defy any attempts at simple classification. Ravel and Bartók most readily spring to mind if one attempts this exercise, but there is also the occasional glimpse over the shoulder to Brahms and towards Shostakovich on the horizon. By the same token, one can readily hear that all three works are from the same genus, that being the inherently unique style that Durosoir cultivated.

All three quartets are in minor keys – F, D and B respectively – and whilst they all contain rays of hope and happiness within them, the overwhelming sentiments of these works can be located within the realms of anguish, anger and anxiety. The first quartet is, temporally, the most substantial of the three. One is immediately struck by the relentless, even hypnotic nature of the composer's elaborate voice-leading, particularly in the outer movements. The Scherzo is an absolute delight, with its fleeting, graceful outer sections and an intensely diabolical central episode. However, the emotional hub of this work lies in the Adagio, a deeply profound and poignant movement that simmers with gloom and despair. Here we find an example of Durosoir's cyclical approach to composition, with the cello's tender melody a mirrored augmentation of a motif heard originally in the opening Allegro moderato.

Durosoir's Second (1922) and Third (1933-34) String Quartets, though completed over a decade apart, are both more concentrated affairs. The main strength of the former, as with its predecessor, is the slow movement, an intensely despairing Berceuse. Its final bars, with a melody in harmonics accompanied by ensemble pizzicati, are especially touching. The last movement is brilliantly mysterious and restless, with the added surprise of a conclusion in the tonic major, offering a momentarily optimistic outlook. An utterly kaleidoscopic array of emotions is on display in the third quartet, which even begins with a hint at sanguinity in the Ferme et passionné first movement, despite its B-minor tonality. The fiery finale makes use of nearly the full list of timbres that string instruments have to offer (including sull ponticello, con sordino, and ricochet bowing) which, far from gimmicky, are adroitly employed to manufacture a captivating soundworld.

The Quatuor Diotima proves to be a superb proponent of this repertoire. That no single player stands out above the others is a virtue given that the composer's dense textures are formed of equally-fiendish intertwining parts. These are shaped with the utmost sense of direction, the quartet never allowing the music to become weighed down by maudlin phrasing. Indeed, the second movement of the third quartet (initially marked 'quite slow, dreamily) could, in fact, have been performed with greater tranquillity, here seeming a tad hurried. All in all, however, the ensemble plays these works with an overflowing profusion of dynamism and with innate musical insight.

Alpha's recorded sound has a palpable sense of urgency, marred only by some mysterious thuds in the background of the Third Quartet's slow movement. Overall presentation is excellent; the booklet includes not only Georgie Durosoir's commentary but also an evocative essay to accompany the Georges Lacombe painting that adorns the cover. These issues, however, are of secondary importance. What truly matters here is that these works – intriguing, impassioned, and intellectual – encourage the listener to make new 'discoveries' on every repeated hearing. It is this aspect of music that keeps us coming back for more.

By William Norris