The Ebène Quartets’s Magnificent Debut

CanadaCanada Haydn, Bartok, Mendelssohn: Ebène Quartet (Pierre Colombet and Gabriel Le Magadure, violins, Mathieu Herzog, viola, Raphael Merlin, cello), Vancouver Playhouse, 4.3.2014.(GN)

Haydn: String Quartet in F minor, Op. 20, No. 5
Bartok: String Quartet No. 3
Mendelssohn: String Quartet in A minor, Op. 13


We have waited for a number of years now to see this celebrated young string quartet from France, formed in 1999.  Winning a variety of major awards — including Gramophone’s Record of the Year — for their 2009 recording of the Debussy, Ravel and Faure quartets, they have since received strong critical praise no matter where or what they have played.  Now we get to see for ourselves.

There are so many young artists and ensembles marketed throughout the world these days, it is always tempting for a critic to argue that each new entrant is not as good as the others say.  In the case of the Ebène Quartet, the critic would be quite wrong.  The Ebène Quartet is a magnificent ensemble, wonderfully thoughtful, imaginative and sensitive, as well as having an enviable tonal balance and blend.   They seemingly have the unique ability to integrate a more ‘up front’, public type of projection with a more intimate, private world where restrained inner feeling speaks. As a work progresses, both worlds mingle together, allowing remarkable variety in the range and shades of expression.  One part of this is the Ebène’s ability to play softly and very quickly with every voice in perfect balance; both motion and restraint being conveyed at the same time.  Another is first violinist Pierre Colombet’s ability to change his projection from ardent and determined to tender and expressive almost instantaneously.

All this was fully exhibited in the Mendelssohn String Quartet, Op. 13, which really was one of the richest interpretations of this work that I have heard.  The opening germinal theme is the same as that of the love song ‘Ist es waht’ (Op .9, No. 1), and makes its appearance throughout the work   Here it was initially presented with vulnerability but unusual sweetness.  Though the first movement moves through many types of agitation, the Ebène’s always let us know that the opening feeling was not far away. But many different shades of this emerged en route; some joyful, some hopeful, some uncertain, some painful, and some determined.  The treatment of the following Adagio was masterly, ingeniously finding a gentle serenade quality (as heard at a distance) in the middle before building to a most passionate climax. Then, like magic, the opening feeling returned again, here, as a sublime recollection in tranquility.  The Intermezzo was the ‘time out’, beautifully articulated with charm, feeling and deliciously-sprung rhythms. The finale then gave us a great variety in dynamics and momentum, with stunningly precise playing, but again the crowning glory was the return to the opening song at the end, so extended, with the violin so intimate and tender in his soliloquy, before the work finally fades into nothing.  I have seldom witnessed an audience as quiet.

I enjoyed the following Bartok Third Quartet too.  This was a warm, beautifully-shaped performance that flowed from beginning to end, featuring exceptional control.  Nonetheless, for a work built on an explicitly Hungarian folk idiom, it was unusually multicultural.  Some of the ripeness of expression took me to Janacek’s ‘Tolstoy Sonata’ quartet; other passages clearly had a Gallic sensitivity and sensuality, sometimes hinting at Ravel’s great quartet.  While the ensemble did study with the venerable Gabor Takacs and Gyorgy Kurtag, those reared on the classic Hungarian, Vegh and Takacs interpretations might object that the Ebène’s were too emotionally fulsome, too strong and emphatic in rhythms (rather than tense and electric) and in general, less prone to reveal Bartok’s sharp, jagged edges.  But this was still a performance of compelling concentration and intelligence.

The concert began with one of Haydn’s lovely ‘Sun’ quartets, Op, 20, No. 5, and here I initially worried that the Ebène’s dynamic contrasts were too great, and the ensemble’s retreat to soft expression was a little self-conscious.  But I soon became convinced of how well they see the overall line and direction of the music, and my worries disappeared.  The very soft and agile playing at the opening of the fugal finale was really remarkable; so quick, but inner voices so perfectly transparent.  And then came the ‘thunderclap’: the ensemble literally tripled their volume, and pushed forward to the end with volcanic intensity.  I am sure some of our elder patrons, who might have been tempted to take a little nap before the larger works, woke up with a ‘bang’ and probably will not be able to sleep again for a week.  Perhaps not an effect for everyday listening, but I am sure Papa Haydn would have loved it.

© Geoffrey Newman 2014

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