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Dante Quartet: Stirring Up Impressionist Energy

The string quartets by Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel not only rank among the most recorded string quartets, they are most often found together on the same recording. Debussy composed his quartet in 1893, Ravel 10 years later. The musical style of both composers has been tagged impressionist, named after the French impressionist tradition of painting. There's a new recording of the works by the Dante Quartet, which has reminded me of the time I first heard this music.

When I was a young student, I liked most every kind of classical music except the string quartet. Then I heard the second movement of Debussy's quartet with its plucked, pizzicato rhythms and exotic melodies, and my ears opened to the possibilities of string quartet sound. Debussy's third movement also struck me as special. And listening to these many years later, I'm still surprised by how the melodies glide with simplicity while moving in and out of sensuous, complex harmonies.

Debussy's quartet remained my favorite for many years, but gradually the Ravel began to intrigue me more — especially through its contrasts between relaxation and surprise. Stir up too much energy in Ravel's music and it gets frothy, stir too little and it tastes like skim milk. The Dante Quartet finds just the right balance for Ravel, especially when the composer is artfully lean.


I'm open to many interpretations of these quartets, as if the music were an impressionist painting whose magic is that it never quite comes into focus. The Dante performances are etched more than most, as if they'd used fine brush strokes to carve musical shapes, rather than broad strokes that would create more wash of the musical colors. It's a fine recording, and one that adds another revealing view of these masterpieces.

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Tom Manoff
Composer and author Tom Manoff has been the classical music critic for NPR's All Things Considered since 1985.