Three Beethoven string quartets from brilliant Ébène Quartet: part of their world-wide project

Ébène Quartet
Pierre Colombet, and Gabriel Le Magadure – violins; Marie Chilemme – viola, Raphaël Merlin – cello

Beethoven Live
String Quartet No 2 in G, Op 18 no 2
String Quartet No 11 in F minor, Op 95 (‘Serioso’)
String Quartet No 10 in E flat, Op 74 (‘Harp’)

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 25 October 7:30 pm

The concert by the Ébène Quartet was probably the most looked forward to concert of the 2019 Chamber Music New Zealand series, though Middle C this year is not really in a position to make a comprehensive comparison. We missed at least a couple of concerts, including that by the Brodsky Quartet in May.

Ébène is a quartet with far more strings to its bows than merely hard-core classical stuff. They are alleged to be equally at home in jazz and film music, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they ventured into heavy metal and hip-hop too.

One cannot shield oneself altogether from the influence of overseas critiques of prominent groups or from occasional hearings on RNZ Concert; and it was clear from the very first notes there was something remarkable here. The French quartet have, this and early next year, devoted themselves to celebrating Beethoven’s 250th birthday (December 2020) by performing all his string quartets around the world. And they are recording a 7 CD box for Erato Warner.

Opus 18 no 2 in G
They had the secret of making each of the three quartets chosen for New Zealand (one  other concert, in Auckland) sound like an extraordinary masterpiece, and furthermore, sound as if one had never heard the piece properly before. Op 18 no 2 opened in the most fragile and delicate way imaginable.  But nothing was so febrile that it didn’t emerge meaningfully, with clarity and wide-ranging emotional liveliness and depth, – particularly the interesting development section. The hesitant refinement of the Adagio cantabile seemed to be a matter of delicacy rather than lyricism, though the uniqueness of the second movement comes with the unexpected Allegro that bursts uninvited on the movement’s predominant spirit, and just as abruptly reverts to the character of the first section again.

In the sparkling Scherzo it struck me that in places there was a curious contrast between the melody line and the lower strings; and even though it’s one of the early instances of the Minuet movement being replaced by a Scherzo, Beethoven fills it with unexpected twists that the players exploited with taste and wit.

And the last movement sustains the spirit of what G major is thought to suggest: spirited, perhaps rustic, though such notions strike a cynic, without perfect pitch, as fanciful. Nevertheless, the Allegro molto finale met these expectations with special delight and imaginativeness.

No 11 in F minor – ‘Serioso’
The other two quartets were Nos 10 and 11, labelled as ‘late middle period’, and they are the last before the final five ‘Late Quartets’. This was probably written in 1811, first performed in 1814. If you’re paying attention to the spiritual nature of keys, this F minor quartet seems to fill the bill for F minor: grieving, melancholic; though the first movement is nevertheless full of energy, with abrupt dynamic changes, and the players highlighted these, emphasising the despair suggested by its quiet disappearance at the end. I’ve never heard the second movement, marked Allegretto ma non troppo, played with such hesitancy in spite of the second violin’s long staccato accompaniment that seemed to dominate the mood as others uttered quiet gestures that didn’t really consist of melody. The third movement is also entitled Allegretto, but ‘assai vivace ma serioso’, rather than Scherzo – which it emphatically is not. Its unchanging, intense disquiet was here expressed with more than usual subtlety and other-worldliness. The last movement opens with the most ‘serioso’ feeling of all – it’s marked Larghetto espressivo and even though it accelerates, a feeling of frenzied insecurity dominated the performance, and was alleviated by startling refinement. One is left uneasy even after the final frantic bars at high speed.

The Harp Quartet, Op 74
The title ‘Harp Quartet’ has always seemed to me an odd misnomer as the odd passages of pizzicato are hardly of critical significance in the score, in spite of the case made for them by the writer of the programme notes. The players began the Poco adagio introduction to the first movement with an infinite, remote subtlety that seemed to lie somewhere between the confidence of the Op 18 work and the sombre ‘Serioso’. But the Allegro itself departed at once from any hesitancy with an ebullient lyricism as well as, in this performance, almost a feeling of turmoil; though always with feet on the ground. The second movement, soberly labelled Adagio ma non troppo, has been variously characterised: it’s simply meditative and beautiful, and they played the long quiet passages with a dreamy unease.

Then the third movement, Presto, which Beethoven again avoids using the word Scherzo to describe, was strangely passionate, almost furious in its seriousness especially, after a couple of minutes, with the dynamic cello-led, chaotic sort of chase.  If it wasn’t for the tempo change from triple to common time, it’s easy to overlook the arrival of the last movement, which follows with hardly a pause, and which might be heard as something of an elaboration, emotionally, of the Presto.  It’s a protracted, complex movement, even though formally, it’s merely an old-fashioned theme and variations. The players invested it with a wonderful feeling of ease and ethereal richness; and the quirkiness of the final accelerated bars seemed to epitomise the wonderful range and expressive variety that this quartet could bring to performances of the greatest music.


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