Hough, Dutilleux & Ravel: String Quartets review – witty scenes of 20s Paris and gossamer delicacy | Classical music

The latest release from the Takács Quartet feels a bit like a comprehensive homage to French 20th-century chamber music – weirdly so, given that a third of the music on it is 21st-century British. While planning this recording of Ravel’s 1903 String Quartet and Dutilleux’s 1976 Ainsi La Nuit, the Takács commissioned their sometime collaborator, pianist Stephen Hough, to compose a work specifically to complement those two masterpieces. The result is Les Six Rencontres – six short movements in which, treading just the right side of pastiche, Hough stylishly conjures up the 1920s Paris of the group of composers known as Les Six – Poulenc, Honegger, Tailleferre, Auric, Durey and Milhaud – not to mention of Cocteau, Diaghilev and Chanel.

Hough, Dutilleux & Ravel: String Quartets by Takács Quartet album cover

Hough’s music captures that era’s appreciation for the absurd, often with its tongue slightly in its cheek but with a penultimate movement (A l’Église – all these “encounters” are named after places) that suggests the church setting is a source of peace rather than awe. The work makes an exuberant upbeat to the other two; moreover, it’s an instruction in how sometimes it’s best just to knuckle down and play a recording’s tracks in the order they are presented. If you heard the first movement of Ainsi la Nuit, with its spooky, spider-silk swoops, before the Au Théâtre movement of Les Six Rencontres, you might think Hough was taking the mickey; as it is, it works delightfully, feeling like an affirmation.

In the Takács’ hands, Ainsi la Nuit skips weightlessly from gauzy otherworldliness to coiled-spring punchiness to gossamer delicacy. The precision and rhythmic tautness that allow these quicksilver changes also inform every note of their playing of the Ravel; their recording of this work has been long-awaited and their vivid, assertive performance doesn’t disappoint. The flamenco-like second movement dances fiercely, but it’s the third movement that’s the centre of gravity, featuring playing of remarkable intensity in which each musician spins long, yearning lines that won’t let go.

This week’s other pick

The duo of violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja and pianist Fazil Say are back together for a typically fiery yet thoughtful interpretation of Bartók’s huge Sonata No 1. It’s preceded by Janáček’s Sonata and Brahms’s Sonata No 3, in which you might expect these two to emphasise the explosive contrasts and heart-on-sleeve richness respectively, but instead it’s the tenderness with which Kopatchinskaja especially approaches them that leaves a big impression.

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