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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Elegant Chamber Music

Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)

Piano Quintet No. 1 in d minor, Op. 89 (1905-6) [30:59]
Piano Quintet no 2 in c minor, Op. 115 (1921) [32:17]

Cristina Ortiz (piano)
Fine Arts Quartet: Ralph Evans and Efim Boico (violins); Yuri Gandelsman (viola); Wolfgang Lanfer (cello)

Recorded at the Performance Arts Center at purchase College, Theater C, Purchase NY, 20-22 December 2007.

NAXOS 8.570938 [63:24]

Gabriel Fauré was the youngest child in a family of six, the son of a school administrator and teacher with aristocratic connections. Encouraged as a child to pursue his musical interests, he was fortunate enough to study with Camille Saint-Saëns, with whom he maintained a close relationship until the elder composer’s death in 1921. Fauré would begin his career as a teacher and organist in smaller parishes, all the while composing songs. Ever self-critical, particularly where larger musical forms were concerned, it would be a few years into his career before he established himself as a major composer and pedagogue. Eventually his career would take him to the organ benches of several major Paris churches and to the directorship of the Paris Conservatoire, where his pupils would include the likes of Koechlin, Ravel and Nadia Boulanger to name but some of the stars.

Unlike many composers, Fauré seemed to have lived a charmed life, free from much of the poverty and personal stress that faced many of his predecessors and colleagues. He held steady jobs in worthwhile institutions throughout his career, was happily married and raised two sons, and lived to see his work internationally respected and to leave a legacy in the hands of several renowned composers that were his pupils. Consequently, his music reflects the serenity of his life. Although it never lacks passion, it seldom contains much angst, and as such has a soothing quality about it that makes most any work from his pen immediately appealing.

Harmonically, Fauré was a bridge figure between the romantics and the more modernist composers that were to be both his contemporaries and successors. Although often subtly adventuresome, his harmonic vocabulary never strays far afield and yet has a certain individuality that makes it both instantly appealing and rather difficult to play, given its tendency to turn right when you expect left, as it were.

These two major works of chamber music are nothing short of masterpieces, and show the care and time that Fauré took in composing them. At times dreamy, as in the opening movement of Op. 89 with its delicious d minor piano arpeggios, at others luminescent as in the gorgeous Andante of Op. 115. This is music that is indeed melodic, but not necessarily tuneful. In other words, a listener will get up having had a beautiful experience but perhaps not whistling any themes.

Cristina Ortiz and the Fine Arts Quartet are very welcome additions to Naxos’ endless supply of fine artists, giving us performances that are marked by understated virtuosity, subtle shadings of color and finely honed ensemble playing. The strings perform with a shimmering uniformity of tone and the balance between the keyboard and strings is never off. Ms. Ortiz has had a distinguished career as a soloist, her early concerto recordings of Villa-Lobos and Shostakovich garnering her many rave reviews. Here as a chamber musician, she proves herself to be similarly superior, playing with verve and panache, and as a complete partner in the music making.

This is music of immeasurable elegance. Yes, there are technical challenges to be met, but this ensemble plays with such refined finesse that the only thing that comes across is beauty. These are performances in which a listener can simply luxuriate, thoroughly enjoying the wash of sound that comes out of the speakers. Let’s hope that these artists come together again soon. Perhaps some Brahms and Schumann? Shostakovich maybe? The possibilities are exciting just to think about!

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