The Quatuor Ysaÿe decided to form its own label, Ysaÿe/Aeon, in 2003 after spending more than a decade working for the "big" classical labels. Now that the group is expending its own dime on recording, it has seen significant improvements in the range of repertoire it is able to commit to disc and is striking a keen balance between standard repertoire pieces, which it performs easily and well, and less familiar music that brings with it increased challenges. With Magnard -- Fauré: String Quartets we experience a little of both endeavors, the mega-obscure, lengthy, and technically extremely difficult String Quartet, Op. 16, of Albéric Magnard combined with the valedictory work of then 79-year-old and deaf composer Gabriel Fauré.
The Magnard is the center of attention here. The most iconoclastic of early twentieth century French composers, he refused to follow any prevailing trend relating to music, stubbornly resisting both German Romanticism and French Impressionism. In his time, Magnard's colleagues viewed his work as that of an arch-reactionary, but in hindsight it is clear that he was actually working toward the future. Magnard's quartet sounds closer to Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht than it does anything by the Impressionists, and its winding turns and abrupt changes of subject indicate a very high level of mental activity at work. Quatuor Ysaÿe takes its time with this quartet, letting it breathe and allowing all of Magnard's various and skittery ideas to come into full focus, refraining from discriminating against themes that don't seem to go very far. For the listener, this does not matter as much in the first exposure to the work than in the second -- one realizes that all fragmentary things Magnard seems not to develop form a significant part of the connective tissue that binds the whole complex together.
The Fauré is terse, enigmatic, and reflective; and Quatuor Ysaÿe effectively switches gears to provide the same kind of care in its presentation that is shown toward Magnard, even though it is not near as difficult a work to play technically. It is a better match on disc for Magnard's quartet than it is for the Impressionist masterworks with which it most often appears. Magnard -- Fauré: String Quartets makes a terrific case for equal status for Magnard's quartet as a major work to be placed alongside the quartets of Debussy and Ravel, and the disc as a whole makes for highly stimulating and emotionally involving listening.