Spectacular Music-Making by a French String Quartet

United StatesUnited States Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Bartók: Quatuor Ébène, Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 14.11.2014 (BJ)

Mozart: Quartet in E-flat major, K. 428
Mendelssohn: Quartet in A minor, Op. 13
Bartók: Quartet No. 4

When the Quatuor Ébène first walked on stage, Pierre Colombet, who took the first violin chair, looked like a man with no perceptible Affekt—but my goodness, how playing galvanized him into passionate life! This is a violinist of stunning powers, combining tone that can vary in a moment from warmth to incisive brilliance, expressive intensity over the widest possible dynamic range, and laser-like accuracy of intonation. His colleague Gabriel Le Magadure proved to be no less impressive a performer when he took over as first violinist for Mendelssohn’s A-minor Quartet. (The Ébènes, like the Emersons, alternate first-chair duties from work to work). With Mathieu Herzog and Raphaël Merlin providing comparably polished and pointed work on viola and cello, I have no hesitation on the basis of this first encounter in hailing the Quatuor Ébène, founded in 1999, as the most thrilling string quartet to have come out of France in recent decades, perhaps rivaled only by the Quatuor Modigliani.

The program was substantial enough to provide a worthy outlet for such talents. Perhaps surprisingly for listeners who still think of Mendelssohn as a sort of Dr. Pangloss among composers—a man and musician of unrufflable good humor—the middle work on the program fully lived up to the musical and emotional heft of the Mozart masterpiece that preceded it and the grittily exhilarating Bartók work that concluded the official program. Though not as grim in mood as the F-minor Quartet, which also figures on the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society’s programs this season, Opus 13, written when the composer had reached the relatively advanced age of 18, continues the series of extraordinarily accomplished works that had begun five years earlier with the astonishingly mature C-minor Piano Quartet, and already included such familiar gems as the Octet for strings and the Midsummer Night’s Dream overture.

The work’s wealth of expressive variety drew a reading of concentrated insight and a great deal of lyrical warmth from all four players. Mozart’s E-flat-major Quartet carries a Köchel number just three after that of the “Linz” Symphony and shares the genial grace of that insufficiently celebrated work. (The encyclopedically experienced Donald Tovey, about 100 years ago, revealed in his Essays in Musical Analysis that he had never heard it.) The Ébènes realized both its textural complexity and its moments of wit to perfection, and their performance of Bartók’s Fourth Quartet was a similar ideal blend of dramatic force and chromatic complexity with straightforward folkloric accents.

The group’s chosen name—“Ebony Quartet” in English—is apparently intended as a tribute to two African-American jazzmen, Miles Davis and John Coltrane. It reflects the members’ openness to styles beyond those usually cultivated by string quartets. The Quatuor Ébène mixes jazz and crossover concerts in among its activities, and the encore that rewarded the evening’s enthusiastic ovation was their take on the Beatles’ “Come Together,” which especially highlighted violist Mathieu Herzog’s gift of understated humor.

Bernard Jacobson



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