César Franck: String Quartet in D major; Gabriel Fauré: String Quartet in E minor, Op. 121

Dante Quartet (Hyperion CDA67664)

27 July 2008 4 stars

Franck/Fauré String QuartetsThis attractive release from Hyperion exhibits the string quartets of two musicians, both organists, who spent the majority of their working lives at the centre of Parisian musical life. The coupling presented here represents the virtual cessation of these men's creative careers and, synonymously, their lives. In Franck's case, the grand String Quartet in D major was his last major composition (he composed some shorter works after his collision with a horse omnibus in 1890, complications from which would lead to his demise later that year). For Fauré, the String Quartet in E minor, Op. 121 proved to be the final stroke of his compositional pen before a fatal bout with pneumonia in 1924.

The Dante Quartet, winner of the 2007 Royal Philharmonic Society Award for Chamber Music, is entrusted with these engrossing contributions to the genre. They impart a stimulating, fervent account of Franck's masterpiece that sweeps through the first movement in well under the composer's guideline of seventeen minutes. It is in this impassioned, forward-moving rendition of the opening Poco lento – Allegro that one feels the four musicians are participants on a turbulent voyage through the organised wilderness of Franck's score, making musical observations inspired by their surroundings. This makes for an electrifying performance that, from the forceful opening bars to the hushed molto dolce conclusion, is guaranteed to elevate the pulse. However, the rather direct approach does lead to the occasional missed opportunity, most conspicuously when the music reaches fortissimo before both reprises of the first subject, prospectively resplendent junctures that here seem somewhat hurried and undercooked.

Recorded sound is excellent throughout, with the potentially muddy texture brought to life in pristine clarity. As a result, Franck's succulent fugal treatment of the first subject is an utter joy to the ear, as are the diabolical dancing semiquavers in the ensuing Scherzo. The Larghetto is a tender yet passionate lament in which first violinist Krysia Osostowicz's sensuous intensity is on radiant display. The ensemble's flowing espressivo underscores the lavishness of the composer's four-part writing, though they could have been more audacious with his ppp markings (which differ very little from passages specified as pianissimo). The vigorous finale – its opening recollection of previous movements harking back to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony – is another contrapuntal feast, with the Dante Quartet delivering a skilfully nuanced and characterised reading.

Whilst the overall ensemble is not as immaculate as one might be expecting from a studio recording (the first violin, for example, begins slightly but noticeably before the others at the start of the Larghetto) one reaps the rewards from the riveting sturm und drang between the four instruments in what, at times, sounds like a live performance. One minor reservation is that second violinist Giles Francis' is sometimes found – metaphorically speaking – playing second fiddle to his three colleagues in terms of both tone production and timbre, struggling to match the extroversion of his fellow violinist (who, in turn, can be a little overbearing during quieter passages). However, this is a reasonably negligible caveat within the context of a marvellous performance.

If Fauré's three-movement String Quartet is of lesser dimensions (its twenty-three minutes is dwarfed by Franck's work, which lasts the best part of three quarters of an hour), its musical content is certainly less obvious and is therefore more challenging for the listener. The Dante Quartet is in equally fine fettle here, revelling in the composer's highly distinctive musical language. Their warm, glowing resonance is vital to their success in the central Andante (the movement that Fauré penned initially), lending an affectionate transparency to the music's polyphonic weavings and producing an uplifting final modulation to A major. The opening movement is played with the utmost fluency, whilst the principal motif of the final Allegro – with its perceptible melodic and rhythmic qualities – continuously re-emerges from all four corners of the quartet with great deftness, driven forward by some beautifully weighted pizzicati. A fine conclusion to an admirable disc.

UK release date: 2 August

By William Norris