The generous ebb and flow of the Psophos Quartet’s playing is at its most alluring in the Dohnányi’s first movement, where sudden bursts of energy alternate with music that does indeed recall Brahms at his most lyrical. I liked the urgency of the Psophos in Brahms’s opening Allegro, also the darkened curve to the line that leads to both the repeated exposition and the beginning of the development section, which is in itself very dramatically played. The Brahms’s ‘Romanze’ is a further highlight, these players’ pooled tone warm and yielding, though not at the expense of some distinctive individual voices.
As to comparisons, the Psophos Quartet stack up well against the Fine Arts Quartet (they play all three Dohnányi quartets) and are generally preferable to the drier-sounding Kodály Quartet (Hungaroton). Turning to the Brahms, aside from the various complete sets of all three quartets (the Melos Quartet are well worth searching out), Quatuor Ebène offer a very original reading coupled with the Piano Quintet but, again, the Psophos Quartet are up there among the best.
From its opening bars, Dutilleux’s quartet, Ainsi la Nuit, takes the listener into another world: less a dreamlike state than a heightened sensory awareness; apparently the dark of night, but transparent of texture; mysterious without ever being menacing; evocative and ecstatic. Yet the Psophos were quite matter-of-fact in their delivery. There was nothing in the way of showiness: it was the tone-colours they produced and the aura they created that held the attention, and sometimes one’s breath.
The Psophos have a characteristically French sound, misty and slightly throaty. In Debussy’s String Quartet in G minor, the ability of each individual to respond and match the other in the quality of utterance and in turn to realise an intense unanimity of sound was again impressive. After the playfulness of the second movement, the expressivity they brought to the central Andantino reinforced the work’s deep emotional focus and the affinity of Dutilleux for the older master.
It was the Ysaÿe quartet who premiered Debussy’s quartet in December 1893, and it is primarily thanks to Eugène Ysaÿe’s commission of a violin sonata from him that Guillaume Lekeu is known. The Belgian-born Lekeu died of typhus at just 24 in 1894. Including Lekeu in such hallowed company should have highlighted both his acknowledged genius and the tragedy of this early demise. However, the single movement Molto Adagio Sempre Cantente Doloroso, though lovingly played by the Psophos, was not the best example of his work. Their encore, the first movement of Ravel’s String Quartet in F major, was generous compensation.