Thought-Provoking Beethoven and Brahms from Quatuor Ebène

16/12/2018

Beethoven and Brahms: Quatuor Ebène (Pierre Colombet, Gabriel Le Magadure [violins], Marie Chilemme [viola], Raphaël Merlin [cello]). Wigmore Hall, London, 12.12.2018. (MB)

Quatuor Ebène (c) Julien Mignot

Beethoven – String Quartet in F major, Op.18  No.1

Brahms – String Quartet in C minor, Op.51 No.1

Beethoven – String Quartet in F major, Op.135

This was an evening, by any standards, of fine performances from the Quatuor Ebène. If I still felt a few nagging doubts at the close, I am not even sure why. Perhaps it was the programming. If the idea of Beethoven’s first – in official numbering – and last string quartets on the same programme had much to recommend it, was Brahms’s First Quartet an ideal work to hear in between them? Perhaps it was the identity of that work, no matter what the performance or programme. Dyed in the wool Brahmsian that I may be, I still find it a very tough nut to crack. Perhaps it was just me in some other way. Why mention that at all? Only really to suggest that any hint of the lukewarm may reflect more upon me than upon the performances, from which, to be fair, I learned much about the works in question.

The first movement of Beethoven’s Op.18 No.1 received an alert, cultivated performance from the outset. Marrying Haydn and Mozart, it was yet never reducible to its origins. Mozart sounded most evident in the balance between phrases, Haydn in the exploratory boldness of the development section, then read into the recapitulation. It was difficult not to think of the composer’s First Symphony. Richly expressive flow, like a river and its tributaries, proved a welcome characteristic of the slow movement. Or was it more akin to a tree and its branches? Either way – words will always be insufficient – it worked. There was passion, in more than one sense, to Beethoven’s vehement outbursts: unnerving, yet unquestionably right. If the fleet scherzo lacked the true simplicity of later Beethoven (as well as its concomitant complexity) that surely reflects the work rather than its performance. Classical poise, complicated by more than a necessary hint of the neo-Classical – it was already too late quite to be Mozart – characterised an accomplished account of the finale.

There was no denying the motivic concision of the Ebène’s Brahms Op.51 No.1, nor the expressive consequences of that concision. I was struck anew by how everything at least seemed to arise – arguably did – from those opening bars, not least the particular character of the viola writing (excellent work indeed from Marie Chilemme). If anything, that concision and concentration – almost yet not quite the same thing – increased as the first movement progressed: Brahms on a coil spring. The Romanze sang, insofar as Brahms permits; it likewise conveyed, even dramatised his complex reticence. Introverted, difficult, the scherzo paved the way for a trio all the more inscrutable, offering a degree of release in the finale, its cumulative motivic force more overwhelming still than the first movement. The players certainly had this music’s measure; perhaps one day I shall warm to it more than I yet am able.

Good natured mastery characterised the first movement of Beethoven’s Op.135: Haydn aufgehoben. Beethoven’s counterpoint rightly sounded quite different, though, both in immediate nature and function. The composer’s – and the performance’s – syntheses sounded so much less effortful than Brahms’s, which again is surely meet and right. Answering phrases now sounded quite unlike those of Mozart, underlining the gulf between this and the opening quartet. The relationship between vehemence and precision in the second movement was finely judged. Unrelenting in the best sense, the music looked ahead to Bartók, even beyond. A poised, dignified slow movement voiced a strangeness of harmony – still in 2018 – that could yet reconcile, only to be met by a duly disorienting introduction to the finale. Humanity ultimately won out in an integrative performance of the finale that certainly did not shirk its difficulties: much, then, to ponder.

Mark Berry

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