This venerable recording by the Italian Quartet from 1965 was, for many years, the standard reference copy of both works either individually or as a coupling. One of the considerable virtues of this group of players was that they could always be relied upon to play in tune and to play with musicianship. The competition was not so strong as it is today as many of the alternative groups simply could not deliver accuracy in tuning (or even worse, the notes). This was rarely commented upon in review magazines at the time, a source of complete bemusement for me, but as one who was expected to play in tune I found listening to string chamber music almost beyond bearing for much of the time - except for this group.
Franck’s Piano Quintet and Debussy’s String Quartet make an apt and unusual coupling, each work its composer’s only, unsurpassable, contribution to the genre. Both receive authoritative performances from Marc-André Hamelin and the Takács Quartet.
The listener may be forgiven for not knowing that any Debussy "Edgar Allan Poe Operas" existed, for neither of the works recorded here was ever completed. Moreover, and you don't learn this unless you read the notes or have investigated for yourself, one of them was hardly begun. After the success of Pelléas et Mélisande in New York, Debussy was encouraged to adapt a pair of Poe's short stories for a new American production. Debussy needed little encouragement and quickly produced a pair of scenarios, but other projects intervened, and the operas were never finished. The more complete one is La chute de la maison Usher (The Fall of the House of Usher), for which there are substantial sketches and several full realizations including the one here by "creative musicologist" Robert Orledge.
Steven Osborne has already made a name for himself in French music with a disc of Alkan and a profoundly moving performance of Messiaen’s Vingt Regards. Here he reaches between those two to tackle one of the pinnacles of the piano repertoire—Debussy’s two books of Préludes. These works have been central to Steven’s repertoire for many years and he brings them to the studio after many public performances and much reflection. He has worked from the most up-to-date Urtext edition which clarifies Debussy’s thought in many places, particularly with regard to tempo relationships within La cathédrale engloutie and a missing bar in Les tierces alternées. In a crowded field Osborne need fear no comparisons: the pianism is exquisite and the interpretations are of a rare depth and subtlety—a recording to rival the very best!
In many ways, Debussy’s piano music finds its rightful home on the harp. Apart from the distinctive textural and colouristic elements in the writing itself, we have contemporary accounts of Debussy’s piano-playing that refer to his ability to make you forget a piano even had hammers. Of course, this doesn’t allow for dreamy, “impressionistic” interpretations; rather, it makes clarity and precision absolute imperatives – which qualities we find in abundance in this recital by Xavier de Maistre and friends.