A Salutary Reminder of the Essence of Chamber Music from the Ebéne Quartet

ItalyItaly Haydn, Ravel, Schumann,  Ebéne Quartet: Pierre Colambet and Gabriel Le Magadure (violins), Adrien Boisseau (viola), Raphael Merlin (cello) with Mitsuko Uchida (piano).  Sala Sinopoli, Accademia di Santa Cecilia, Rome 11.12.2015. (JB)

What a thrilling concert this was.  Or better, a salutary reminder of the essence of chamber music.  The OED gives two definitions of salutary: (1) Beneficial in providing an opportunity for learning from experience.  And (2) archaic  health-giving.  Well thank you OED: I  intend both the modern meaning as well as the original Middle English, used less these days.  The joy of this particular concert was not being able to distinguish   between the two meanings.  One was present with the same force as the other.

So what were we reminded of in such a salutary way?  Why nothing less than the essence of making music and of listening to it.

The health bit is already in evidence from the appearance of the four young men of the Ebéne Quartet.  But just wait till they play their first notes of music.  All your yesterdays are somehow contained in their delivery of the music as well as all your here-and-nows; the experience delivers a healthfulness, not just to the four who are playing, but to all who are lucky enough to be hearing.  Talk about live-alive-O!

Last week’s reminder of Sontag’s distinction between sensibilities and ideas at the recital of French pianist, Tharaud, calls forth another pertinent citation from that lady: she once told me, The single, most important piece of information which I possess is that there are ways of knowing that I don’t yet know about.  A pity you couldn’t have been here for the Ebéne Quartet, dear Susan.  You would have been in your seventh heaven.

When I was a student I was a pianist with one of Vera Kantrovich’s star violinists,  studying the Franck sonata,  a duo ensemble piece if ever there was.   Vera showed us how to turn our individual talents into a single, meaningful whole.  Your musical instincts are fairly sound, she told us, but you are not making sense of the ensemble of Franck’s structures.  You fail in many places she added, because you are not constantly  in ear and eye contact.  

Those ear and eye contacts of yesteryear were forcibly revisited upon me as I listened  and watched  the four Ebénes playing the Haydn quartet in C, Op20 no2.    So too were the wise words of Piero Farulli (viola of Quartetto Italiano) who, when I was in late middle age, invited me to attend his coaching sessions with young quartets.

He would often tell his young quartets that they were required to appear the following week, knowing their parts from memory. But maestro  the players would protest.  No but  the maestro interrupted, I had to do this.  And you will do it too.  (The Italian Quartet played all their repertory from memory.)  Once in your memories we can focus on the musical nuances of the work. 

The point here is that once music is in your memory it is a part of you; you are then in an admirable position to share it with your fellow music-makers.  There is an enormously vital give and take.  And the string quartet is the ideal structure for the shared experience, an experience in which the audience are privileged and partially participating witnesses.

The Haydn  quartet amazes by its intimacy.  It begins breezily and easily, but the warmth of the second subject on the cello, suddenly causes the other three to hold their breath.  And not just them.  The audience is holding its breath too.  This intimacy is highly infectious.

There are moments when the cello and viola appear to be having a love affair.  This is not of their making.  It is written into Haydn’s score.  But lesser mortals would miss it.  A programme note tells me that the Ebénes have been coached at the Paris conservatory by the Ysaye Quartet.  They have the printed music in front of them in case of the need of a prompt.  But their ears and eyes are in permanent exchange with one another.

The Ravel Quartet  (1903) was the main peak of a much highlighted evening.  Its musical form is classical traditional, following Debussy’s much earlier foray into string quartet composition.  But there any similarity ends.  The yearning theme which opens the first movement sounds unmistakably that it is In Search of Lost Time, a theme which Ravel’s slightly older contemporary, Marcel Proust (1871 – 1922)  would explore with a great vigor, matched only by its almost obsessive evasion.

The resulting ambiguities are present in Ravel’s quartet too.  The seeming-innocence of the opening theme turns out to be enchantingly complex.  Juxtapositions of unrelated keys, even today, are shocking on the open ear.  All of this is offered with the finest, sophisticated relish by the Ebéne Quartet.  Or rather the relish is ours: the quartet have a quirky trick of seeming to stand apart from the sophistication they cooly present.  Were we the listeners seduced or slandered?  The eloquent old-world manners of the Minuet explode in the finale’s turbulence, which then fades to raindrop patterings, with echo effect use of mutes.  Proust was trapped into the heavy imagery of words to explore these themes: Ravel is a freer bird.

After the interval the quartet were joined by Mitsuko Uchida for the Schumann quintet in E flat Op 44.  To her credit, Dame Mitsuko (she is Japanese with dual UK citizenship) is a supreme ensemble artist.  A pianist friend said he found her playing somewhat reticent.  I could hear no reticence.  That word suggests a withholding.  Far from withholding, the lady was giving it everything she had, but she was giving it to the ensemble with extraordinary subtlety and conviction.  And those are two qualities are difficult for any artist to combine.  Uchida does it with aplomb.

I have heard Elissò Virsaladze play this quintet. And that lady is a famous Schumann specialist.  But her performance is presented as a piano concerto with string quartet accompaniment.  With Virsaladze’s artistry this almost works.  But I am more comfortable with the Uchida integrated approach.  The intimacies and intrigues between the five instruments are more finely articulated.  This is chamber music.  The other is dangerously close to showmanship.

Take those spiky, spreading chords which open the piece.  The piano is a percussion instrument and could easily overwhelm the strings here.  But Uchida has heard that the strings make their own nuanced contribution to this majestic dignity and she measures the balance so that players and audience receive it.  There is also a cruel moment in the first movement when Schumann hands a voluptuous tune to the cello, who then passes it to the viola.  The viola can never arrive at the singing quality of the cello, so Raphael Merlin (cello) turns down the easy soaring of his instrument, (this interestingly increases its expression) so that Adrien Bolisseau (viola) takes over the tune with a touching  (unspoken!) appeal to the audience for us to hold his hand.  We do.

Prolonged applause for all with Dame Mitsuko taking her place with the two violins to her right and viola and cello to her left.  And when it becomes clear that the audience are not going to let them go without an encore, the boys step to one side of the platform and the lady gives us number two of Schoenberg’s Five Pieces, Op 19: a witty, two spits and a cough to send us off treasuring an aural evening that will remain with us for the rest of our lives.

Jack Buckley

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