Rebecca Clarke’s Two Movements for String Quartet seem to deepen and grow in stature with every hearing—and they’re getting lots of hearings these days, both in concert and on disc. Of the latter, Quatuor Sine Qua Non‘s performance, in an album entitled 4 for 4, just released by the Paris-based independent label Skarbo, is arguably the best ever. Before describing it, however, I need to repeat a story that Clarke told about the first time she met Ralph Vaughan Williams, in 1909:
“I was playing the first performance of his early String Quartet in g minor, and he came to hear us rehearse…. It was my very first concert engagement and I was awfully nervous. What with that, and what with the Quartet being in manuscript, I played a horrible wrong note, a real howler, in one of those fine viola solos. You can imagine how I felt. Of course, I apologized abjectly, and what do you think he said? He said, ‘But you know, I’m not sure but that I don’t rather like it. Do try and remember what you did!’ He was just being kind, of course, but it made me feel a lot better, just as he meant it to.”
This is by way of saying that I hope the Quatuor Sine Qua Non and the nice folks at Skarbo will be equally kind to me for a howler I committed nearly twenty years ago, in the published edition of the Two Pieces, where I proofread measure 6 of the Adagio with my eyes instead of my brain, and passed over several A-flats and an E-flat where the harmonic sense—and the manuscript parts—plainly require A-naturals and E-natural. This set up a fabulously dissonant (if totally wrong) chord on beat 2, reading F-sharp/C/E-flat/E-natural. Previous recordings have tacitly corrected this passage, but Quatuor Sine Qua Non embraces it forthrightly, and you know, I rather like it—it’s an arresting sound, all by itself, and it balances a comparable crunch (B/E-flat/F/F) near the end of the piece, at measure 111, that is indisputably correct. In any case, the quartet plays it beautifully, in a performance that underscores how bracingly modern the piece still feels, ninety-five years after its composition. (And now that they’ve inadvertently brought it to my attention, I shall be donning sackcloth and ashes, and alerting the publisher straightway!)
You don’t have time to hear how wonderful this performance is. Everything is in its place, and in proper relationship to what surrounds it, but there is nothing careful or fussy about it. If anything, the players’ exact readings only seem to deepen the sense of meaning and emotional depth: their exquisitely-calibrated “a tempo ma poco meno mosso” at measure 79 of Comodo e amabile, for example, transforms everything that follows into something rich and strange, while their commitment to Clarke’s sometimes counterintuitive dynamic-markings brings out the Adagio‘s underlying disquiet, turning the frequent ostinati into soft, increasingly urgent drumstrokes. For all their precise observance, there’s no lack of passion, with touches of portamento rarely heard in this music that nevertheless seem just right.
The rest of the program is on the same exalted plane, and every piece is a winner. Germaine Tailleferre generally suffers benign neglect as Les Six‘s surprisingly chic kid sister, but her Quatuor à cordes will make you sit up and take notice. Florentine Mulsant’s work may be as unfamiliar to you as it was to me, but I suspect that her Quartet, Op. 47, will change all that. And Amy Beach’s Quartet for Strings is some kind of blinding masterpiece—I’ve played it five times already, and I’m still trying to figure it out, lost in its magnificent improbability. The repertoire is so compelling on its own terms that you might miss the album-title’s intended significance—take all the time you need—and in any case the whole program is beautifully played, and just as beautifully recorded.
The disc is available here and here, and you can get both disc and downloads here. While you’re at it, check out the entire Skarbo catalogue, which is fascinating, not least for the chance it offers to get to know the works of Aubert Lemeland, a composer who was born nearly fifty years after Clarke, but shared her fate in the post-World War II triumph of academic serialism.
4 for 4 (Quatuor Sine Qua Non: Sara Chenal and Virginie Turban, violins; Catherine Demonchy, viola; and Claire-Lise Démettre, cello). Includes Rebecca Clarke, Adagio and Comodo e amabile for string quartet; Tailleferre, Quatuor à cordes; Beach, Quartet for strings; and Mulsant, Quatuor à cordes № 3, Op. 47. Skarbo CD DSK4182-DDD, 2020.