One time student of Saint-Saëns, chief organist at the Église de la Madeleine, successor to Massenet as instructor of composition at the Paris Conservatory, and tutor to Ravel and Nadia Boulanger, Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) remains, in my opinion, one of France's most underestimated composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While most of his works have been recorded, some many times over, my sense is that he is still mostly known to the general music-loving public by a small sampling of his total output, namely the Requiem, the Pavane, the Elégie for cello and orchestra, and possibly excepts from the incidental music to Pelléas et Mélisande and the Dolly Suite in its orchestral version. Those into the slightly more esoteric realm of the French chanson are likely to be familiar with some of the composer's large number of songs, and keyboard aficionados are apt to be acquainted with some of his pieces for solo piano. But for me, Fauré's most important contribution lies in his chamber works, not because they are necessarily any more alluring or beautifully crafted than any of his other compositions, but, as I've posited previously in these pages, because I believe they forge an otherwise missing link between Brahms and Debussy. The fluid treatment of harmony, the flexible shifting between major and minor tonalities, the acceptance of higher order ninth and 11th chords as integral to the harmonic unit, and the almost impressionist textures that one encounters in the late sets of Brahms's piano pieces are clear signposts on the way to Debussy, but the road stops considerably short of the symbolist-impressionism of the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. The highway connecting the two called for a bridge, and that bridge, I believe, was Fauré.
The Piano Quintet No. 1 in D Minor was not completed until 1906, but its genesis dates back as far as 1887. It opens onto a pristine dream world still innocent of Debussy's autoeroticism, but suffused with the throbbing pathos of Brahms. Fauré's score shimmers with the same dappled sunlight that is reflected through the trees onto the women's dresses in Renoir's Le moulin de la Galette. It's an effect that has to be seen in the painting and heard in the music to be fully appreciated. The Piano Quintet No. 2 in C Minor was written over a period of a little over two years, between 1919 and 1921, and dedicated to Dukas. Interestingly, the evolution in this work is not further in the direction Fauré had taken in the earlier quintet. The melodic lines are not as sinuous, neither is the harmony quite as vague. There is almost a return now to the cleaner, classical lines of Fauré's teacher, Saint-Saëns, though whether that French conservative would have approved of his student's parallel chromatic progressions is open to debate.
There are far fewer recordings of these two quintets than there are of Fauré's piano quartets, but among them one of the loveliest is with Domus on Hyperion, a CD I've cherished since it was released in 1995. Domus, of course, folded up its geodesic dome and went home several years ago, but thankfully Hyperion has kept this recording, at full price, thank you, in their catalog. Though you'd have to rob me of that disc at gunpoint, this new one with the Fine Arts Quartet and pianist Cristina Ortiz is definitely a keeper.
The Fine Arts Quartet was originally founded in 1946. Since then, it has undergone numerous changes in personnel. The roster of players on this 2007 recording are Ralph Evans and Efim Boico, violins; Yuri Gandelsman, viola; and Wolfgang Laufer, cello. It should be noted that Gandelsman left the ensemble at the end of the 2008 season and was replaced on an interim basis by Chauncey Patterson. Outstanding as the Domus performances are, the Fine Arts Quartet and Ortiz manage to scent this music with a bouquet I can only describe as quintessentially French. In their hands, Fauré's music vibrates with a sentient tenderness almost too sad and too personal to be expressed. Beyond recommended, this is a mandatory purchase. -- Fanfare, Jerry Dubins, Nov/Dec 2009