Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Paganini String Quartet: Debussy Quartet in G Minor, Op. 10; Lees Quartet No. 2, 1957

Today I bring you the next installment in my quest to discover classical music: Debussy's String Quartet in G Minor played by the highly respected Paganini String Quartet. This was the only string quartet that Debussy ever wrote, although the liner notes mention that he intended to compose another. The music on this record is incredibly beautiful; it is full of passages featuring Debussy's characteristic whole tone scale, but it also shows a mastery of harmony, rhythm, and dynamics. The rich timbres are as much a credit to the musicians (and apparently the instruments as well) as to Debussy, but the richness and beauty of the composition itself could have only come from the mind of a great master. To date, I would rank this as my favorite of the classical records in my collection.

The quartet does not actually feature the great virtuoso Paganini, but all four musicians, Henri Temianka, Gustave Rosseels, Charles Foidart, and Lucien Laporte play on Stradivari instruments previously owned by Paganini. The sound quality of the disc is high and the instruments sound very pure, but the fact that the quartet chose to base their image and name on their Stradivari instruments got me thinking. Is the Stradivarius sound really so unapproachably unique, and if so, are his pieces truly superior to those of all the other artisans who have ever produced instruments in the violin family? I understand that there is little consensus on this issue in the classical world, and I therefore wonder if it would be appropriate to draw a parallel between the Stradivari issue and the audiophile movement. There are some music listeners who insist that they can tell the difference between audiophile recordings and their less extravagant counterparts, but I for one have always been a little skeptical of just how superior audiophile recordings really are to the human ear. First of all, most audiophiles have had years of listening practice to make their ears more discriminating. Second of all, most of them tend to have unreasonably expensive sound systems, so it seems to me that to the degree that audiophile records do sound better, the difference is only perceptible on prohibitively expensive equipment. For all practical purposes, then, the difference is negligible. Finally, although this suspicion doesn't prove anything, I would be curious to hear how these listening experts would fare in a pepsi challenge type exercise. I once heard that if you play the exact same recording on the exact same gear for the same person at two slightly different volumes, most respondents will confidently answer that the louder of the two clips had a higher quality sound. In any case, whether or not the uniqueness and perfection of the Stradivari sound are overstated, this record should be a treat for all lovers of deep music.

Debussy- Movement II- Scherzo by Easy Jams

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