An outstanding concert in Berlin by Quatuor Ébène

GermanyGermany Haydn, Bartók, and Schubert: Quatuor Ébène (Pierre Colombet,  Gabriel Le Magadure [violins], Marie Chilemme [viola], Yuya Okamoto [cello]). Kammermusiksaal, Philharmonie, Berlin, 10.10.2023. (MB)

Quatuor Ébène with cellist Yuya Okamoto at an earlier concert © @co.merz

Haydn – String Quartet in G minor, Hob. III:33, Op.20 No.3X
Bartók – String Quartet No.3, Sz 85X
Schubert – String Quartet No.15 in G major, D 887

This was an outstanding concert: three masterpieces of the string quartet repertoire in performances that were not only of the highest quality but also, especially in Schubert’s case, constantly (in a good way) surprising. The Quatuor Ébène, here with Yuya Okamato substituting for regular cellist Raphaël Merlin, is of course one of the world’s leading chamber ensembles; I doubt anyone would question that. But there was absolutely no resting on laurels.

If a Death on the Maiden I heard from this quartet fourteen years ago had announced a Schubert raging against the dying of the light, this G major Quartet took such tendencies further. Not only was this anything but a comfortable, Biedermeier Schubert, it was perhaps the most brazenly modernistic incarnation of the composer I have heard: certainly so when it comes to quartet-playing. There were times when I might have thought this music from a century later, especially coming as it did after Bartók’s Third Quartet, although then I remembered late Beethoven — and appreciated just how much vehement strength of purpose was shared between the two composers. Not that lyricism, whether in the first movement or elsewhere, was absent, but it was never merely lyrical, never a chance for repose. This is not how I should always like to hear Schubert, but that is not the point. Its compelling instability, within an overarching command of form and structure, had it make sense, almost like never before. A disconcerting combination of nervous energy and E minor melancholy characterised the second movement. Ferocious, grandly rhetorical outbursts to rival anything in Winterreise, made their point both in themselves but also, crucially, in relation to the music surrounding them. The scherzo was similarly febrile and full of startling dynamic contrasts. Even its Trio afforded little in the way of relaxation. Deeply ambiguous, heard as if through the haze of an uncomfortable summer night, its dreams seemed to tend towards a delirium carried through into a finale whose tipsy mood swings might charm yet could never console.

That 2009 Wigmore Hall concert had featured the same Bartók quartet. My memory is far too faded to attempt a comparison; suffice it to say that I was mightily impressed on both occasions. The first of its four parts vividly set out a number of dialectical contrasts and connections. Bartók does that, of course, but he needs his players to do so too. This they did in a performance as intent on making every note count as if it had been Webern, though the sheer profusion of melody on offer put me in mind of Mozart and Schoenberg too. The transition to the second part, as to each of the four parts, was splendidly handled: not only convincing but thrilling. Cello pizzicato having incited an infernal dance, themes could be turned upside down, inside out: always themselves, yet always new, a veritable homage to Bach. he Ricapitulazione della prima parte again combined the desolate and the welcoming, the ensuing Coda having its mysteries unlocked through recognition that gesture and motivic transformation were dependent on one another, even two sides to the same coin.

First on the programme was Haydn’s G minor Quartet, Op.20 No.3. Just as much as in the Bartók that followed, the players ensured that every note and its connections to what had gone and what would follow truly mattered. The freshness announced in the first movement, with a continuous development at least to rival that to be heard in the two later works spoke – and sang – in a Sturm und Drang manner that served as a meeting-point for what, with the broadest brush, we might think of as ‘Baroque’ and ‘Classical’ tendencies. There was no attempt to smooth the dissonances of the Menuetto; rather they registered fully within a euphonious balance that permitted the richness of Haydn’s inner parts to have their say. The slow movement was similarly rich, as it were, in its plain-spokenness, again characterised by something close to Schoenbergian developing variation. A tonal surprise to take one’s breath away such as one might expect from Schubert was as perfectly prepared as it was executed. The finale benefited from a different yet equal variety of intensity, suited to its character and function, replete with unexpected turns that, once heard, could never have been otherwise. The Quatuor Ébène brought all these to life in a vivid theatre of the imagination.

Mark Berry

Leave a Comment