Ames Piano Quartet: Hahn / Schmitt / Dubois Piano
AMES PIANO QUARTET
The Ames Piano Quartet, the resident chamber music ensemble at Iowa State University, must be thanked and lauded for these three discoveries, three all-but forgotten Piano Quartets by three minor French composers - Reynaldo Hahn born in Venezuela but Parisian by election. The nearly forgotten Theodore Dubois (1837-1924) is of an older generation, his dates make him a near-contemporary of Saint-Saens (1836-1921), and he was a close friend of his elder by 14 years, César Franck, and of his younger colleague Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924). With Saint-Saens, Dubois was famously one of the jury members who denied Ravel a Grand Prix de Rome; not that it did him any good: the uproar that resulted from the decision led to his resignation from his post of director of the Conservatoire. Hahn (born in 1874, died 1947, better known for his songs and operettas, which seem to epitomize French insouciance, chic and joie de vivre) and Florent Schmitt (1870-1958) were also themselves near-contemporaries, but bringing together these three composers is quite appropriate, since the two latter were pupil of the former at the Paris Conservatoire. Not surprisingly, Dubois' Piano Quartet, from 1907, is the most conservative in its language. It is a fine specimen of Brahmsian romanticism, no better but no worse than the tons of chamber music written at the end of the 19th century and early into the 20th, and very enjoyable in its own right, although not showing a very distinguished personality. Though composed in 1942 (and published only in 1946) and equally appealing, Hahn's is not much more advanced in its language nor displaying much more of a distinctly recognizable personality, except for its more Faurean tenderness that really blossoms in the exquisite slow movement. All this, again, is enjoyable if not entirely distinctive, and then comes Schmitt's "Hasards" (the liner notes offer "Chances" or "Ventures" as alternative translations, but "Coincidences" or "Risks" would also be possible). Schmitt's standing and posterity has terribly suffered from two factors: his anti-semitism and alleged collaborationism with the Nazi occupants (which he denied), and the fact that he lived too long, so that his style had become terribly backward-looking when he died in 1958 and Boulez was writing "Pli selon Pli". Heard now, when the stylistic slaughters are but a footnote in the great book of music history, he sounds (especially when seguing from the finale of Hahn's Quartet) like a wonderfully imaginative, original and witty composer - which goes hand in hand, apparently, with his knack at finding punning titles for his pieces for which no English equivalents can be found, like his "Suite sans esprit de suite", Suite with no consistency, "Sonate libre en deux parties enchaînées", Free Sonata in Two Chained-Up(linked) Parts, "le Clavecin obtempérant", the Compliant Harpsichord (a pun on, of course, the well-tempered clavier) - or the finale of this very piano quartet: "Bourrée-bourrasque", gushing bourrée. In this respect (only), his true English-speaking heir is PDQ Bach. His Piano Quartet from 1937 sounds, in its three (short) fast movements, like a whimsical and witty Ravel, or a Martinu with less dramatic motorism and more humor, with great tonal invention and incessant harmonic and rhythmic suprises. The slow movement, "demi soupir" (half sigh, or, in music notation, and eighth rest), the longest of all four, is brooding, mysterious, atmospheric. "Hasards" is not a complete discovery: it has been recorded before, most notably on a Valois CD, Florent Schmitt: Sonate Libre, Op. 68 / Trois Rapsodies, Op. 53 / Hasards, Op. 96 and recently by Christian Ivaldi on Timpani, Florent Schmitt Quintet for Piano - but not enough. Hearing it, I think it belongs to the great masterpieces for the line-up - and not so many were composed in the 20th century. The Ames Piano Quartet plays it excellently, in an approach very close to the performers on the Valois disc, slightly more heavy-footed but also more vividly present and powerful.