The string quartets by Debussy and Dutilleux are classics of the genre and, in this concert, the Quatuor Psophos’s instinct for the ravishing soundworlds of their French compatriots made for a rewarding experience.
From its opening bars, Dutilleux’s quartet, Ainsi la Nuit, takes the listener into another world: less a dreamlike state than a heightened sensory awareness; apparently the dark of night, but transparent of texture; mysterious without ever being menacing; evocative and ecstatic. Yet the Psophos were quite matter-of-fact in their delivery. There was nothing in the way of showiness: it was the tone-colours they produced and the aura they created that held the attention, and sometimes one’s breath.
The Psophos have a characteristically French sound, misty and slightly throaty. In Debussy’s String Quartet in G minor, the ability of each individual to respond and match the other in the quality of utterance and in turn to realise an intense unanimity of sound was again impressive. After the playfulness of the second movement, the expressivity they brought to the central Andantino reinforced the work’s deep emotional focus and the affinity of Dutilleux for the older master.
It was the Ysaÿe quartet who premiered Debussy’s quartet in December 1893, and it is primarily thanks to Eugène Ysaÿe’s commission of a violin sonata from him that Guillaume Lekeu is known. The Belgian-born Lekeu died of typhus at just 24 in 1894. Including Lekeu in such hallowed company should have highlighted both his acknowledged genius and the tragedy of this early demise. However, the single movement Molto Adagio Sempre Cantente Doloroso, though lovingly played by the Psophos, was not the best example of his work. Their encore, the first movement of Ravel’s String Quartet in F major, was generous compensation.
An interesting coupling, Brahms and Dohnányi being cut from similar bales of cloth, the younger composer’s First Quartet composed in 1899, just two years after his feted predecessor had died. An informative booklet-note draws viable parallels between the two composers; though beyond the first movement’s gorgeous opening theme, the second-movement Scherzo is more reminiscent of Mendelssohn than of Brahms, certainly as performed here by the Psophos Quartet. I would say that the connecting link between these two particular works centres around the Hungarian harmonic twists in Dohnányi’s finale and in Brahms’s Allegretto third movement.
The generous ebb and flow of the Psophos Quartet’s playing is at its most alluring in the Dohnányi’s first movement, where sudden bursts of energy alternate with music that does indeed recall Brahms at his most lyrical. I liked the urgency of the Psophos in Brahms’s opening Allegro, also the darkened curve to the line that leads to both the repeated exposition and the beginning of the development section, which is in itself very dramatically played. The Brahms’s ‘Romanze’ is a further highlight, these players’ pooled tone warm and yielding, though not at the expense of some distinctive individual voices.
As to comparisons, the Psophos Quartet stack up well against the Fine Arts Quartet (they play all three Dohnányi quartets) and are generally preferable to the drier-sounding Kodály Quartet (Hungaroton). Turning to the Brahms, aside from the various complete sets of all three quartets (the Melos Quartet are well worth searching out), Quatuor Ebène offer a very original reading coupled with the Piano Quintet but, again, the Psophos Quartet are up there among the best.
"This is one of the best CDs it has been my privilege to review for Musicweb. The sheer playing is expert, passionate and gorgeous. For anyone who loves Berg’s music and how so much of it was centred on women I can only suggest that you listen to how the Psophos Quartet seems, to me at least, to go a bit deeper than other recordings.
Stephen Hall, MusicWeb International, Janvier 2008
"Familiers de la musique de Bacri, les Psophos excellent dans ses brumes sonores ou ses thèmes plaintifs comme dans la furia qui électrise ces pages débordantes d'imagination."
Nicolas Baron, Diapason, Janvier 2008
Les excellentes musiciennes du Quatuor Psophos s’engagent à fond dans cette musique heurtée, souvent homophone et toujours bien sonnante. Succès retentissant: le Sixième Quatuor est même bissé !
Patrick Szersnovicz Monde de la Musique – Festival Musica, Strasbourg - Nov. 2007
« Ce dernier quatuor (Marc Monnet) est dédié aux excellentes musiciennes du Quatuor Psophos dont on admire la parfaite maîtrise d’un jeu où la musicalité de l’expression est en toute circonstance l’atout maître : une salle comblée les fêta (...)” Marc Munch, Dernières Nouvelles d’Alsace – Festival Musica, Strasbourg - 6 octobre 2007
« ... The french players of the Psophos Quartet, probably the best young string group in Europe, attacked this miniature fantasy on three notes with the same passion, faultless intonation, and ensemble precision we heard in Schumann, Beethoven and Dutilleux. » Geoff Brown, The Times, 29 August 2007
« Saturday afternoon's Psophos concert was a fascinating object-lesson in technique serving content instead of merely being on display for its own sake (...). »
Christopher Morley, The Birmingham Post, 28 August 2007
« (...) Que le Quatuor Psophos persévère en si bon chemin ! Il le conduira à l’idéal de plénitude sonore et de netteté rythmique qu’incarnent ces formations chevronnées de jadis (Quatuor Kolisch) ou de naguère (Quatuor LaSalle). »
Télérama n° 2994, Gilles Macassar - 2 Juin 2007 , fff