CHAUSSON: Piano Quartet in A, Op. 30.   SAINT-SANS: Piano Quartet in B flat, Op. 41
Touchwood Piano Quartet (Fiona McCapra, violin; Judith Busbridge, viola; Adrian Bradbury, cello; Andrew West, piano)

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An attractive coupling -- the limited amplitude of chamber-sized forces smoothes out the pronounced stylistic differences between these composers, representing the extremes of French Romanticism.

For three of its four movements, Chausson's piano quartet sounds more tightly knit and substantial than his more ambitious Concerto for Piano, Violin and String Quartet. The first movement incorporates some nice touches: the second theme appears as a subdued piano chorale, but the violin takes it up immediately with a typically French bounding, forward surge; and the recap "sneaks in," with the main theme barely repressing its staccato exuberance. The second movement's dignified, yearning viola theme works into a broadly jubilant emotional outpouring; the searching third movement wavers ambiguously between 6/8 and 3/4 before settling into an elegant, slightly errant waltz. After a promising start, the long (11:42), rambling Finale gets that padded feeling; the turbulent avalanches of passagework eventually become so much intense, self-important sawing.

Particularly after that Finale, Saint-Sans's fresh, clear harmonies sound positively pristine; this quartet contains its share of sequential repetitions and other traditional Romantic devices, but the painstaking craftsmanship renders the progress of its appealing melodies seemingly inevitable. The second movement holds a surprise; over square, short-winded opening motifs, the composer introduces the chorale melody Wie schn leuchtet der Morgenstern, first in minor, later in major! (The notes are completely unforthcoming about its significance -- I suspect the writer didn't recognize the tune.)  Stark, clear gestures and cadenzas bring a dramatic edge to the otherwise conventional scherzo. The Finale's clean-cut lines would not be out of place in Schubert; the chorale melody reappears and becomes the main subject of development, rounding things off neatly.

The performances by the Touchwood Piano Quartet are first-rate; I particularly liked Andrew West's pianism, which backs up the rippling dexterity that the writing requires with a sense of tonal solidity and weight. The sonics are a bit boxy and studio-bound -- perhaps Banff's Rolston Recital Hall is a dry space -- but are well-balanced, and sufficiently vivid to convey the strings' resinous attacks.

S.F.V. (Aug. 2001)