In addition to the traditional pairing of the Debussy and Ravel string quartets, the Arcanto Quartett performs Henri Dutilleux's Ainsi la Nuit (1971-1976), a grouping that is becoming increasingly popular on recordings. These are absolutely secure, thoughtful, self-effacing readings of the Debussy and the Ravel. While the quartet doesn't bring particular new revelations to the pieces, the members play with nuanced sensitivity and impeccable musicianship. The haunted quiet they achieve in the first part of the third movement of the Debussy is especially impressive, as is the clarity of their sense of direction and unity in the final movement, the most difficult of the four to pull off. Similarly in the Ravel, the contrast between the serenity of the third movement and the raw athleticism of the fourth is attention-grabbing and invigorating.
The affinities Ainsi la nuit shares with the Debussy and Ravel quartets may not be immediately apparent because Dutilleux's harmonic language is not tonal, and its seven moments don't have an easily recognizable structure; this is unabashed "modern music." Placed strategically between the Debussy and the Ravel, though, the quartet can be heard as a relative of those works, which in their time (particularly the Debussy) stretched the boundaries of quartet writing. Like the earlier works, the Dutilleux is concerned with drawing fresh, new, often startlingly beautiful sonorities from the ensemble. The work's title, as well as the titles of many of its movements, suggests a nocturnal scene, and listening to the piece with that in mind can help orient the listener. The nearly pointillist sparseness of the fourth movement conjures up the mysterious vastness of space, and the riot of colors in the fifth movement, "Constellations," evokes a night sky blazing with stars. Harmonia Mundi's sound is clean, present, and nicely ambient. These are performances that would serve well as introductions to the Debussy and Ravel, and the Dutilleux should intrigue listeners with open ears.