Ravel’s only string quartet was written in 1902-3 and premiered in 1904. It became a cause célèbre when it failed to win the prestigious composition prize at the Paris Conservatoire, and Ravel’s popularity was such that the Director was forced to resign. The work is dedicated to his teacher Fauré, who had stood by Ravel during his long run-in with the Conservatoire. Although the work has many innovations it is still firmly rooted in the 19th century with its allegiance to sonata form, the traditional four movement format and the tonal harmonic system.
The music of Ravel, Debussy and Fauré has a curiously elusive quality, which the opening theme of this work demonstrates quite vividly. It is a sinuous and exotic melody and its companion, the second subject, has a similar flavour, though it has a more reflective character. The development allows a more dynamic view of the main theme before sinking back to its former languorous mood. The coda gives us one last exquisitely lingering embrace.
The pizzicato second movement is a pure delight, a mechanistic precision that reminds us more of Yeats’ Byzantine golden bird – More miracle than bird or handiwork – than Ligeti’s meccanismo di precisione. The vision of a miraculous bird taking flight is an irresistible image for this extravagant music. And the Trio with its feeling of shimmering dusk and evening full of linnet’s wings only adds to the atmosphere of spellbound transformation. The return flight of the golden bird is prepared with care and delicacy.
The muted calm of the Très lent features the wonderful alto voice of the viola. Its melody is first interrupted by an ethereal version of the first movement’s main theme. Later an unmuted central section bursts in passionately but soon dies back. The second half is a long refulgent fading into the night with another magical re-scoring from the first movement. After this sumptuous nocturnal elegy the first bars of the last movement are uncomfortably jolting, but its ingenious brilliance quickly fits into the prevailing mood. The first movement theme makes another cyclic appearance and the work ends with a bravado flourish.