PCMS presents Quatuor Ébène

Beethoven à la mode

Like many other string quartets founded by four young musicians who came together as students, French ensemble Quatuor Ébène has been around a while, although its members still play with youthful exploration and enthusiasm. Distinctive in style and sound, Ébène remains unlike any other group on the chamber circuit; even with a new violist, Adrien Boisseau, its members interact seamlessly, yet retain their individuality.

Les quatres hommes d'Ébène. (Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Chamber Music Society)

Unexpected variations

The quartet’s program consisted of early-late Beethoven, with Debussy’s Quartet in G Minor in between. This represented a last-minute program change from the announced closing work, Beethoven’s A Minor Quartet, Op. 132, which I’m sure drew many, because it represents the culmination of Beethoven’s achievement.

The decision was disappointing but perhaps wise, because the A Minor would have been a bit much on top of an already substantial program. In any case, the substituted work, the infrequently performed E-Flat Quartet, Op. 127, is no slacker and demands the full resources and maturity of any group that plays it.

Beethoven wrote the six string quartets of his Op. 18 with almost Mozartean speed between 1798 and 1800. The sixth of them shows him as having assimilated all Mozart and Haydn had to teach him and moving into his own terrain. It's usually played with gusto, but from the start, Ébène reached for a gossamer tone from this work. There was a great deal more to the lightness, vivacity, and subtle instrumental interplay of Ébène’s feel for the music, and enough strength and energy when needed to ground it. The group also brought out the work’s spirit of fantasy and, in the extended Adagio introduction to its finale, which Beethoven instructed be played “with the greatest delicacy,” it fulfilled his wishes with a ravishing pianissimo. If this wasn’t an everyday Beethoven, it offered facets of the music I hadn’t heard before.

New view

In some ways, an almost different ensemble tucked in to Debussy’s G Minor String Quartet. The Debussy and Ravel quartets are generally cited as major representatives of musical Impressionism, but Ébène’s vigorous Debussy reminded me of its immediate predecessor in the French tradition, the César Franck Quartet. Debussy would have known this work, composed only a few years earlier, and the Germanic Romanticism to which it was indebted. Ébène acknowledged this influence with a heftier, more robust approach than Debussy usually receives, while still bringing out inner voices with clarity and élan and giving certain accents and rhythms an almost experimental feel.

The program’s conclusion, Beethoven’s Twelfth Quartet, followed his longest dry spell in the medium, but began the run of the final five quartets that consumed the last two years of his working life.  The opening Allegro, which follows a brief Maestoso that frames the work as a whole, still reflects his middle-period quartets. With the Adagio that follows, however, we enter the world of Beethoven’s ultimate sublimity. Technically, it's a theme with variations, but the music unfolds so surely and meditatively we seem to be following the composer into a new and inexhaustible realm.

Ébène’s exploratory style, suitably disciplined, ideally suited the music’s ever-evolving layers of meaning, and the gripping performance brought cohesion to the piece. The Philadelphia Chamber Music Society promises return engagements. I look forward to hearing Ébène again.

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