Music review: The Quatuor Debussy with Katherine Chi at Library of Congress

(Chad Johnston)
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Thursday, February 24, 2011

The string quartet repertoire is an embarrassment of riches, containing so many lofty peaks that the occasional program of foothills and even flats is not unwelcome. Such was the offering Tuesday at the Library of Congress by the Quatuor Debussy, now in its third decade.

The Lyon-based group has cultivated what I suppose we would call a "typically French" sound. Rather than the warm, deeply upholstered sonority that a German or Italian quartet strives for, the Debussy's sound has almost more air than tone in it - fragrant, evanescent and sighing. Interesting, if (to these ears) limiting.

It didn't matter one way or the other for the opening work, the Quartet No. 2 by Philip Glass. The Quatuor Debussy failed to answer the nagging question posed by virtually every piece from this composer: Why are humans needed to play it?

In Puccini's dolorous "Crisantemi," the sense of world-weary detachment was not completely apt, the suffering held at a distance. Darius Milhaud, who was to the 20th century what Vivaldi was to the 18th, composed at great speed, in ink, to order, in any and all genres. In his typically insouciant Ninth Quartet (of 18), the instantly forgettable melodies spin smoothly out, leaving barely a ripple in their wake. And strangely, it was here, in its central, indigenous repertoire, that the Quatuor Debussy sounded the least competent. Intonation was poor, almost unprofessionally so.

The very fine Canadian pianist Katherine Chi joined the group for the Franck Piano Quintet. This work treats the strings mostly orchestrally (massed together, opposing the piano), and so there was a sense of easy relaxation as they sawed away. The quintet certainly has its longueurs, but after the Milhaud it sounded profound.

- Robert Battey

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