Fantastic “new” string quartet – Quartuor Arod

Fantastic “new” string quartet – Quartuor Arod
​Here’s another sensational French string quartet that I’ve recently discovered, which instantly joins two of my other favorite French string quartets at or near the top of the list – Quatuor Hanson and Quatuor Diotima. Although Quartuor Arod has been around awhile (10 years or so), only the two violinists remain the same today. So while they’ve made a few recordings before, with and without new violist Tanguy Parisot, this is the first recording with all 4 of their current members, including the newest – cellist Jeremy Garbarg. Thus I would consider this to be from a “new” group. And “young” too; according to the booklet, they are all between 27-30 years old. So this should be an exciting release.
 
I wouldn’t normally be interested in a CD from the Warner label (er, should I say “Erato”, which is how Warner markets its Classical releases nowadays). However, occasionally they do offer something intriguing – which this one certainly is. To hear a “new”, “young”, French string quartet playing Debussy and Ravel is enticing, but that they also include a world premier work commissioned by/for them makes it even more so. And that’s not all. What really makes this release special is the inclusion of an hour-long documentary film on DVD, which I found endlessly fascinating. (More on this anon.)
 
The CD
I listened to the CD before watching the DVD, and started with the new work, which was my initial attraction. And it doesn’t disappoint. Composer Benjamin Attahir explains in the booklet that Al Asr (“afternoon prayer”) is one of the 5 elements of the Muslim salah. Musically, it is interesting, imaginative and expertly scored. And the superb playing of the Quartuor Arod makes it immediately impressive and engaging. Surrounded by works of consummate refinement and mastery by Debussy and Ravel, I found it fascinating to hear this group play something completely different – bringing unbridled power and immersion into the piece, displaying a tapestry of color, atmosphere and musical insight combined with a frisson of new discovery. The suddenness of dynamic extremes – always a hallmark of the very best quartets – is here in abundance, along with precision of articulation and variety and intensity of vibrato. This, combined with excellent recorded sound (yes – from Erato), is absolutely spectacular string quartet playing, and a gripping musical experience.
 
The piece is cast in 5 continuous sections, with an interesting variety of emotional characterizations over persistent rhythmic underpinnings. It is somewhat tonal, but not tuneful. Specifically, there are occasional hints of melody over rhythmic pulses which sometimes bear tonality. The opening movement, Intense, is certainly that, while flavored with distinctive Middle East thematic motifs. This doesn’t sound like an “afternoon prayer” to me; it’s restless, anxious and nervous – brilliantly characterized by this quartet.
 
Ancora is even more agitated and rhythmically insistent, while the Lontano is emotive and full of angst, including eerie harmonics playing brief snippets of melody. The Agitato 4th movement is very dramatic and rhythmically propulsive – just short of angry. It really gets the heart racing as tension builds with excitement. There are hints of Shostakovich too in an intense passage played by the violins in octaves. The dynamic extremes of this group’s playing are absolutely stunning in the dramatic outbursts in this section.
 
And the music gets even more furiouso in the final Fuga. The rhythmic drive is incredible, culminating in passages of real vehemence. And this group isn’t afraid to get down with it and make some gritty, vociferous sound when called for. But it’s not unrelenting. The momentum relaxes in the central section, creating an atmosphere of tension and almost unbearable anticipation of more to come. And when it does, starting with the viola, you should hear these guys dig in with ferocity with their bows, accompanied with feral col legno as well. (And the 1st violin is practically screaming in a very Shostakovichian wailing passage up high.) Yet it’s never ugly; it’s not even aggressive. It is at all times musically appropriate. But the sheer muscle and intensity in their bowing is extraordinary as they drive the piece home with dramatic propulsion.

What a fantastic piece this is. Mr. Attahir is a gifted, accomplished and imaginative composer, and he could not possibly have better advocates than these amazing musicians to bring it to life. I do wonder, though, why he calls it “afternoon prayer” rather than something more appropriate for the driving rhythmically energy in it. Not for an instant did this music conjure up a prayerful, reflective moment. But in the end it doesn’t really matter because the piece is immensely engaging and appealing.
 
I can’t help but think this piece should have come last on the program, though. How can Debussy or Ravel follow it? (It would be unthinkable in a concert setting.) So I decided to take a break and came back to the rest of the program on another day.
 
Turning to the Debussy, which comes first on the CD, all the qualities of the very best string quartets are here, just as they were in the contemporary work. Unanimity of approach, wide dynamic range, natural musical expression, precision of execution, and uniformed interpretive vision. My previous favorite new recording of the Debussy and Ravel Quartets was from the Quatuor Van Kuijk (yet another fabulous French group) on their 2017 Alpha Classics CD. I thought they were the freshest, most enlightening readings of these revered works I had heard. Well, the Quatuor Arod are even more illuminating – finding even more musical insights and variety of expression (especially in the Debussy), and play with such extraordinary freshness and spontaneity, it’s as if hearing this music for the first time.
 
I can’t continue here without pointing out the sensational playing of 1st violinist and founding member, Jordan Victoria. What an amazing player he is – not only the suddenness of dynamics, and the effortless, natural expression, but his ability to turn on a dime – from muscular, powerful “digging in” with the bow to a singing delicacy on the next musical phrase. I marveled at these characteristics in the Attahir as well, but they are especially notable here in Debussy. I also noticed several times throughout the program the rich, husky tone and gorgeous expressiveness of violist Tanguy Parisot as well.
 
Getting back to the Debussy, the first movement is a revelation. There are so many imaginative touches – combining atmosphere, color, dynamic shadings and variety of articulation – revealing so many hidden musical details and nuances, I was reaching for my score as I discovered things I had somehow missed before. The second movement, in contrast, is strikingly articulate – with incisive bow on string and crisp pizzicatos. And it simply dances! It is so spontaneous and delightful, the music literally bubbles off the page as they playfully alternate musical phrases and punctuated pizzicato. The Adagio is heartfelt introspection with glorious, intimate singing lines, while the finale is captivating – brimming with all the qualities I’ve described above. And I must mention that the 1st violin’s nearly-3-octave G-major scale at the very end is surely the smoothest, most perfectly and effortlessly executed – while achieving a magnificent, truly fortissimo high B-natural – I can ever recall hearing. It almost makes every other attempt at it sound awkward. 
 
My notes are filled with a series of pointed observations:
 – suddenness of dynamics
 – variety of intensity and speed of vibrato
 – gorgeous, unified blend
 – unanimity of phrasing and dynamic shading
And above all, they sound positively orchestral in sound and scope. This is certainly one of the most illuminating and rewarding recordings of the piece I have ever heard.
 
They bring similar qualities to the Ravel, yet it is distinguished in a slightly different way. It is the group’s faithfulness to the score which is not only refreshing, but also enlightening. Ravel knew what he was doing in his scores, and his string quartet is no different. He is very specific in indicating exactly what he wants, and thus his string quartet is perhaps slightly less amenable to interpretation than Debussy’s. And what impressed me most with the Quatuor Arod is their strict observance of dynamics and accents, and allowing Ravel’s musical genius to shine through unadulterated.
 
The opening Modere, marked tres doux (“very soft”), is certainly that – yet their tone is vibrant, even in passages played with only the slightest hint of vibrato. The Vif is delightful – pizzicatos contrasting beautifully with silvery, gossamer arco sections. And the Lent is heartfelt and reflective, notable for some truly breathtaking pp and ppp playing.
 
And then … the finale takes off like a jet, with enormous vigor and energy. Right from the very opening measures, there is a driving propulsion which is riveting. Listen to how they don’t make a slight hesitation before the 2nd and 4th bars like nearly every group does – presumably because it’s nearly impossible to play those double/triple-stopped fermata chords instantaneously after the 16th notes immediately preceding them. But these guys do it – effortlessly. Thereafter, the tempo itself isn’t breathless; nor is it driven too hard. Oh, it’s definitely fast – and very exciting – but there is weight and power behind it, affording it gravitas and drama. Just listen to the muscle behind the bowing of the strongly emphasized accents, and the sheer force to the ferocious pizzicato quadruple stops in the 2nd violin and cello. Wow! And we haven’t even gotten past the first page yet! As the movement progresses, the group can instantaneously relax in the espressivo sections, beautifully and clearly differentiating between mp and mf. Again, it’s their adherence to the score which is most impressive – and musically significant. And they bring the concert to a thrilling conclusion.
 
To say these readings of the Debussy and Ravel quartets are exceptional would be an understatement. They certainly can stand alongside those from the aforementioned Quatuor Van Kuijk as some of the very best I’ve heard. And in such a crowded marketplace, that is very high praise indeed. When one factors in the sensational new work commissioned just for them, this release becomes very special indeed. And the accompanying DVD documentary is mere icing on the cake.
 
The DVD
I wouldn’t normally spend much time on a supplementary DVD, but this one is different. I was pleasantly surprised to discover this isn’t a mere “making of the CD”, staged fluff piece. Rather, it is a legitimate, in-depth, feature-length documentary. It is in French with optional English subtitles. The filmmaker follows the quartet in day-to-day activities, capturing them at length in rehearsals, on tour and in snippets of live concert performances. There are also extensive interviews with the individual musicians – especially with 1st violinist (and founder) Jordan Victoria, and to a lesser extent, the newest member, cellist Jeremy Garbarg. Not only does it document the group’s approach to making music, but also the individuals’ involvement on a personal level. There are even a few historical clips of Victoria playing violin as a child; he was excellent even at the age of 8!

The film begins with extended rehearsals/performance extracts of the group playing Bartok and Haydn (and short footage of a couple other works as well). And later on, there are extended rehearsals of the original group – with all 4 of its original members – playing Mendelssohn, which was enlightening. The film then recounts how the remaining 2 violinists found suitable replacements for the viola, and especially the cello, and how they learned to adjust to each other and open up to new ideas and candid criticisms from their new members.

A lot of time is spent on the group being attuned to one another, musically and emotionally. And there is a lengthy segment on an obsession with playing in tune (which went on perhaps a bit too long). All these efforts can certainly be heard in their playing on this new CD. It is fascinating to observe them placing such an emphasis on absolute perfection, yet their music-making on the recording sounds remarkably spontaneous and utterly natural. 

The film’s final chapter captures an extended rehearsal session with the 95-year-old Hungarian composer Gyorgy Kurtag coaching them on his 12 Microludes. Victoria states the group had worked on the piece for months and thought they were well-prepared to play it, but Kurtag kept them for over 9 hours fine-tuning it. (In my opinion, though, no amount of “coaching” will elevate this piece to the level of creative mastery of, say, Bartok; or Ligeti and Penderecki circa 1960s; or even Kurtag’s own 1959 String Quartet, Opus 1.) What impressed me most was to witness what consummate musicians these young men are. They relished every moment they spent with the composer, eager to learn from him and try ever so patiently to understand the piece better. Maybe one day they’ll record it and we can judge for ourselves how it turned out.
 
I was somewhat surprised the film spent so much time on the Kurtag session and none on the preparation of the new piece they commissioned for this recording. Not to diminish the Kurtag segment, but it would have been fascinating to observe their interaction with composer Benjamin Attahir as they learned and recorded his new work. 
 
Overall, I came away with a newfound understanding of – and appreciation for – what goes into making a group of 4 musicians into one of the very best string quartets today (as opposed to one which is merely “very good”). The documentary reveals just how grueling it is to be a member of such a group (especially when on tour, spending days, sometimes weeks, together, practicing and rehearsing for countless hours), and what a personal dedication and commitment it is being a part of it all.
 
I have to give Warner credit – this is a sensational release in every way. And it’s superbly recorded too, which I wasn’t expecting from “Erato”. What a pleasant and rewarding surprise.


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