Quatuor Ébène’s electrifying performance of Haydn, Schubert and Bartók

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Haydn, Bartók, Schubert: Quatuor Ébène (Pierre Colombet [violin], Gabriel Le Magadure [violin], Marie Chilemme [viola], Yuya Okamoto [cello]). Wigmore Hall, London, 4.12.2023. (JC)

Quatuor Ébène during a previous concert © @co.merz

Haydn – String Quartet in G minor, Op.20 No.3
Bartók – String Quartet No.3, BB 93
Schubert – String Quartet in G, D 887

The Quatuor Ébène delivered an electrifying performance at Wigmore Hall showcasing a diverse programme of Haydn, Bartók and Schubert.

Their engagement with the music and desire to search for a creative performance was apparent from the very first movement of the Haydn String Quartet in G minor. There was never a dull moment, and the music constantly defied the audience’s expectation. The quartet was unafraid to make sudden pianissimos as well as dramatic sforzandos, in line with the whimsical nature of the composer. They sought for such varied ways of playing a phrase that the repeat of the first movement exposition sounded almost nothing like it did the first time, showing the audience just how differently a phrase could be sounded out by a quartet as versatile and imaginative as they are. If their wonderfully rich but at times brusque sound seems to stretch the limits of the Classical imagination it is only because they are seeking for a performance that excites and engages, which they have successfully done so.

The rhythmic drive and energy latent in their Haydn performance manifested themselves fully and brilliantly in the Bartók String Quartet No.3. The Quatuor Ébène fully revealed what philosopher Theodor Adorno called the ‘formative power of the work’, displaying with flawless virtuosity not only the different strands in the piece, but also showing how these strands integrate into a coherent whole in this exciting quartet of which they gave a hair-raising performance. Having heard their performance of the Ligeti Quartet at the Wigmore Hall last year, I am convinced the Quatuor Ébène are masters of bringing these modernist masterpieces to life. I was certainly not disappointed with this performance.

Nevertheless, the highlight of the evening was Schubert’s monumental G major String Quartet, D887, which dominated the entire second half. The completely synchronized movement of the quartet, their perfect intonation and their strong sense of rhythm all came together in their rendition of the piece that presents a great challenge to any self-respecting string quartet from its very first chord. The Ébène’s Schubert is not the charming one the composer is typically remembered for, but one full of darkness and violence. This only served to make fragile moments of hope in the music — such as in the first movement when the first violin soars above tremolo strings — that much more precious and beautiful. Every subtle change in harmony did not go unnoticed by the quartet, but the rhythmic drive underpinning the work was never compromised. There was a sense that we had gone on a long and exciting journey even after the first movement alone. Occasionally the music felt aggressively manic, but it all served to leave the audience breathless. It is a testimony to Quatuor Ébène’s power of engaging their audience that not a cough was heard in the Wigmore Hall during the performance of Schubert’s sprawling masterpiece.

A dramatic performance with an unrelenting energy and rich sound.

Jeremy Chan

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