Dallas — On March 7 in Southern Methodist University’s Caruth Auditorium, the Dallas Chamber Music Society presented yet another fantastic chamber ensemble. This time it was the Quatuor Ebène, a string quartet made up of four young French men.
They played magnificently, but a big disappointment was in their programming. On QE’s website, an unaccredited New York Times review is quoted: “…a string quartet that can easily morph into a jazz band.” Hopes were high, but soon dashed, that such a transformation would occur. They only morphed into a string quartet.
This was primarily due to their well-performed but mostly unexceptional program: Haydn and Beethoven, staples of the repertoire, were paired with a harmonically complex 20th century work, by the French composer Henri Dutilleux, uncomfortably stuck in the middle.
Haydn’s seminal Quartet in C Major, Op. 20, No. 2, opened the program. Haydn is credited with inventing the string quartet as a musical form and the six quartets that make up Haydn’s Opus 20 set the mold for such pieces, right up to the present day. Haydn continued to expand and develop the form, as did Beethoven and following, but it was in these works that the form was first defined.
The performance delivered by Quatuor Ebène—Pierre Colombet, violin; Gabriel Le Magadure, violin; Adrien Boisseau, viola; and Raphaël Merlin, cello—brought out one of Haydn’s most important innovations: the equality of the four voices. They played with amazing clarity, letting each voice speak out when it was their turn and then fade back into the texture when another instrument took over. This is quite difficult to achieve because the balance between then instruments is always in flux. The excellent intonation was another factor in achieving such exceptional transparency.
On the downside, they frequently overplayed, foreshadowing the style that they applied to the Beethoven quartet later in the concert. This is a frequent failing with young performers, so it was not really a surprise. However, given their sensitive musicianship elsewhere, it was disappointing.
Dutilleux’s Ainsi la nuit (1976) followed. While it is written for a string quartet, it is not in the form of a standard string quartet. Other than instrumentation, it has little in common with Haydn’s Opus 20 models.
Its seven short movements are typical of the music of the 20th century. The work is basically atonal and conceived horizontally with little attention to the vertical consequences. As far as I could tell, this is not a serial work but is based on an invented scale that is a fifth surrounded by minor seconds. (Think of a black key and the two white ones on either side.) Each of the movements explores the possibilities the instruments offer. There are long slides contrasted with pizzicato, the shortest note possible. Much of it is in the highest possible register.
The Quatuor Ebène mastered all of Dutilleux’s formidable difficulties and made a good case for the piece. However, at 20 minutes plus, it goes on a hair too long. Novelty can become mundane when repeated too many times.
When the four virtuosi launched into Beethoven’s Quartet in A Minor, Op. 152, the audience sat up in their seats. From the first notes, we knew that this was going to be an exceptional performance.
This is one of a series of six quartets, the last Beethoven would write. In many ways, they remain as influential as Haydn’s Opus 20 by freeing the form from such rigidity. Unlike Haydn’s easily understood quartets, Beethoven’s conceal more than they show. At the time, they were bewildering and even now only give up their secrets reluctantly.
At the time, the composer was in poor health, he would be dead in two more years. This situation had a great influence on these quartets. In fact, the A Minor quartet benefitted from a temporary improvement in his health. He named one movement, Heiliger Dankgesang (“holy song of thanks”), for his recovery.
In fact, Heiliger Dankgesang is a good reaction to hearing this superior performance. It was consistently musical with special attention lavished on the ends of phrases. The dynamic range went from almost inaudible to forceful, but never overplayed. The texture was transparent and the players were always aware of their ever-changing functions.
It will be of great interest to see how Quatuor Ebène develops the future. Hopefully, they will stay together. It has a chance to be one of the top quartets in recent memory.