French composers' refusal to conform celebrated in show

Works of Ravel, Faure and Franck featured at Shriver


February 15, 2005|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Long before the French developed a distaste for American influences on their culture, they took a dim view of things German.

Starting early in the 19th century, composers revealed a particular penchant for breaking away from rules of harmony and expectations about melody or structure, as codified by Bach and his artistic descendants. No note of Berlioz or Debussy could ever be thought of as Germanic.

In another winning program of the Shriver Hall Concert Series, which is having a remarkably strong season, two French ensembles shared the stage Sunday evening to celebrate this wonderfully stubborn streak of national pride.

One of the neat things about the presentation was that, in this context, even Cesar Franck's F minor Piano Quintet, which owes enough to the world of Beethoven and Brahms to be considered at least Franco-German, emerged with the Franco side way out in front.

The Ysaye String Quartet - violinists Guillaume Sutre and Luc-Marie Aguera, violist Miguel da Silva, cellist Yovan Markovitch - started things off with an exceptionally refined account of Maurice Ravel's F major Quartet. This music makes its points gently, sensually. It occupies a rarefied world where poetic impulses trump theories of composition, and where, with the same kind of insights that guided Impressionist painters, essence trumps literalism.

The score's transparent texture seemed more gossamer than ever in this performance, yet with plenty of strength left underneath, while the exotic flavoring of Ravel's harmonic language registered warmly.

Gabriel Faure wrote his D minor Piano Trio in 1923, when the German school of music was throwing its weight behind atonality and a whole new set of rules. There isn't even a whiff of that modernity in this piece, which Faure could just as easily have written 30 years earlier. Its elegant lyricism, which a boldly driven finale cannot entirely dislodge, produces an exquisite air of nostalgia.

The Paris Piano Trio - violinist Regis Pasquier, cellist Roland Pidoux, pianist Jean-Claude Pennetier - articulated Faure's carefully crafted score with considerable smoothness and expressive weight.

For the Franck Quintet, Pennetier teamed with the Ysaye Quartet. The players got deep into the composer's chromatic groove, making each harmonic shift meaningful and compelling, finding the right color and inflection for each transformation of the unifying themes in the work.

The intensity of the performance never obscured the turns of phrase and instrumental coloring that place the music squarely and sumptuously in the French tradition.

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