The Quatuor Ebène on Top Form at Wigmore Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Mozart, Schubert, and Tchaikovsky: Quatuor Ebène, Wigmore Hall, London, 1.5.2012 (MB)

Mozart: String Quartet no.19 in C major, KV 465, Dissonance
Schubert: String no.13 in D minor, D 804, Rosamunde
Tchaikovsky: String Quartet no.1 in D major, op.11

Pierre Colombet, Gabriel Le Magadure (violins)
Mathieu Herzog (viola)
Raphaël Merlin (cello)

The Quatuor Ebène’s visits to the Wigmore Hall have regularly featured amongst my chamber music highlights over the past few years. This concert proved equally distinguished, save for one reservation, which I shall get out of the way first. It has nothing to do with the performances, but rather concerns one of the works. Even in so committed a performance as this – and the unanimity of tone at the opening, akin to an audition of very superior hymn-singing, was as impressive as anything we heard this evening – I was not convinced that Tchaikovsky’s First String Quartet shows the composer at anything like his most inspired, nor that the string quartet was ever a natural medium of expression for him; that despite highly wrought intensity from the players, offset from time to time by a (relatively) greater classicism of approach in the first movement. The second movement was charmingly songful, with some gorgeous portamenti, never overdone, from first violinist, Pierre Colombet. Intensity of expression from all the players always seemed perfectly judged. The scherzo was vigorous, rhythmically exact and yet with a sense of something wilder, and the finale featured simply glorious string playing, almost persuading me that the piece is better than it really is. Rich yet variegated tone and high spirits took one a long way indeed. As for the encore, I am even less convinced by the claims so many make for Astor Piazzolla, but whichever tango it was, was expertly despatched.

Returning to the central repertory, Mozart’s Dissonance Quartet was the first item in a programme of considerable length. Dramatic intensity of tone permitted the extraordinary radicalism of the first movement’s introduction fully to register, the exposition proper revelling in cultivated, alert playing, leading to undeniable passion in the development section. Near-Beethovenian intensity, born of motivic propulsion, proved properly creative of form. The richness of Mozart’s writing in the recapitulation – so much more, of course than ‘mere’ recapitulation – was clearly relished by all concerned. Moreover, there was a cello solo from Raphaël Merlin truly to make one swoon. A flowing quality, in the best sense as opposed to the modern euphemism for absurdly fast, characterised the slow movement. Hushed playing and bold gestures were integrated alike into a greater whole. The music was despatched with a charm that verged upon the Schubertian, yet with a poise that remained entirely Mozart’s own. Unafraid to pre-empt Beethovenian experimentation in the minuet, the Ebène players never actually sounded quite ‘like’ Mozart’s successor. The spirit of eighteenth-century dance remained – if only just, which is how it should be. And of course, the sinuous allure could be no one else’s. Perhaps most striking was the intensity of motivic development in the trio, which here could not help but put one in mind of Brahms and Schoenberg. Mozart’s Shakespearean breadth of sympathy was revealed in the finale as surely as in his operas. Quicksilver transformations from Haydnesque grace – and yes, of course there is much, much more to Haydn than that – to Mozart’s minor-mode daemon were effected with dramatic dash and credibility. And what Schoenberg called the Idea of the work was palpable, if undefinable, throughout; no wonder Schoenberg so adored Mozart’s chamber music.

The first movement of Schubert’s Rosamunde Quartet navigated surely the precarious balance and fruitful dialectic between the sweetness of pain and nostalgia, and angry gesture. Contrasts intensified in the development, which reached an almost Mahlerian level of intensity – that word again – before subsiding, so as to permit stoic recapitulatory defiance. There was another balance to be struck, another dialectic to be explored, in the slow movement: that between space for unfolding and the necessity of resigned yet onward tread. Violence was more sparingly employed here, yet to shocking effect. The minuet was relatively subdued, yet was far from being without incident; one just had to listen carefully. Hearts were more openly on sleeve in the trio, movingly so. The finale struck just the right note of suggesting an impossible desire to return to Mozart. Time had passed, in more than one sense. There was an apt doggedness to the working out of the material, psychologically very much what was required. Something tried to break free, yet time and again was thwarted. The bind of modern subjectivity?

Mark Berry