Wednesday, September 1, 2010

In review--Night Music

Arcanto Quartett
Quatuors à cordes
Debussy, Dutilleux, Ravel
Harmonia Mundi

I have mixed feelings about Aracanto Quartett’s Quatuors à cordes. I’m a fan of the French Impressionist composers, Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy so I enjoy hearing their string quartets. While the composers employed some dissonance in their quartets, they also provided harmonic release.

I cannot say the same for French composer Henri Dutilleux’s suite, Ainsi la nuit in which the composers brings no release to his listeners. It’s as if listeners are trapped in a desert of dissonance and punished by the shrillness of strings. Similar to a cat which can meow sweetly or caterwaul, string instruments can also provide its share of tension while playing dissonant passages. Granted the composer set out to express darker emotions and even the words “unsettling anxiety and sombre violence” appear in the liner notes to convey part of what the French composer aimed at expressing—the experience of nightmares through music.

Personally, I don’t listen to music to give myself a headache or to convey my nightmares. I’m not trying to prove any philosophical or intellectual point when I listen to music. I actually listen to music for pleasure and to relax my overworked brain. So in that regard, Dutilleux’s darkly expressive night music does not appeal to me.

I know that dissonant or “atonal” music experienced its hey-day during the early and mid-20s century and is still listened to today with interest. Some dissonance is required in music otherwise the music lacks dynamics, but I would imagine that going overboard actually harms the human nervous system, not to mention lowers immune responses. I’m not a medical expert so you don’t have to take my word for it, but certainly check in with your body’s rhythms after listening to dissonant music. I know that our body’s natural rhythms align to external sounds so you can only imagine what some types of music is doing with the cells in your body, as well as, brainwaves. And if I found myself catching a cold, I wouldn’t turn to dissonant music to boost my immune system or help me rest.

Fortunately, Debussy’s and Ravel’s music has been thought to have a healing effect on the body. The music might be seen as possessing a soft focus, but these composers provide plenty of dynamics in their string quartets that appear on this recording. The Arcanto Quartett (Antje Weithaas, violin, Daniel Sepec, violin, Tabea Zimmermann, viola and Jean-Guihen Queyras, violioncello), bring out both the beauty and passion of Ravel and Debussy’s masterful quartets. Fortunately, the quartet starts out with Debussy’s quartet, which I realize isn’t relaxing, but still a satisfying piece of music. The musicians successfully capture the nuances and sensitivities in Debussy’s and Ravel’s quartets.

However, by placing Dutilleux’s suite in the middle of the program, Ravel’s quartet, which ends the recording, will either feel like a respite or it will feel edgier than usual following Dutilleux’s more strident music. Or perhaps to some listeners it will feel like dawn breaking in the sky after experiencing nightmares. But overall, I think each of us has enough tension in our lives just living on this planet to add more tension through music. While I enjoy the Debussy and Ravel quartets (as mentioned earlier), I wish this quartet had performed a more mindful program. While it’s true that some types of classical music possess a healing effect, I imagine that like any genre of music, classical music also has its share of harmful music (this coming from a healing music perspective and not necessarily that of a music journalist-critic). In the end, the music on this recording might balance out, especially ending with Ravel’s quartet.

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