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Ébène Excels in Classical and Jazz Idioms


Thursday night Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall welcomed back the young French group, Quatuor Ébène. Before the concert, I heard that its previous engagement, some two years ago, was sparsely attended because no one had heard of them; the few in attendance then heard a thrilling concert. This concert drew an ample crowd, who were thrilled with this eclectic string quartet’s innovative program. The first half of the evening offered a delightful pair of string quartets by Mozart and Tchaikovsky, then the second half presented selections (announced from the stage) from Ébène’s jazz-inflected album Fiction.

Mozart’s String Quartet No. 15 in D minor, K. 421 (1783) opened quietly, mournfully. The subdued, breathy first violin line, performed by Pierre Colombet, set the tenor for this piece and its intense introspection. In the first movement, Allegro moderato, the gorgeously prominent viola line showcased the musicality of Mathieu Herzog, while Raphaël Merlin, cello, stood out in moments of punctuation. Throughout, Gabriel Le Magadure, second violin, switched seamlessly between ensemble and soloistic playing. The second movement, Andante, opened with a tender and expressive theme, modulating into dramatic outbursts. Constanze Mozart described those moments of punctuation as her labor cries during the birth of their first daughter that were rendered into music her husband was composing in the next room; had Jay Goodwin not included this detail in the program notes, I would not have characterized the music thus. (How reliable an historical witness is Constanze Mozart? That is another matter entirely.) In performance, the Andante alternated between a berceuse and a (somewhat stately) dance. The Menuetto opened with a deliberately reduced, and carefully considered, use of vibrato – to great musical effect. The finale, Allegretto, ma non troppo, was a movement of quiet, intense drama, yet with a keen sense of dance throughout.

Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No. 1 in D, op. 11 (1871), written as the centerpiece of a concert the composer organized to raise funds for himself, demonstrates his reverence for Mozart, whom he called “a musical Christ.” The string quartet opens with what sounds like a citation of Mozart before journeying into distinctly Russian terrain – fiery, passionate, romantic. The first movement, Moderato e semplice, is hardly either: the opening theme is at a moderate tempo, but is only as easy as simple music, mastered in all its details, ever is. As the movement progresses, the tempo became more immoderate, the sentiment rougher; this is not a criticism – the performance was exciting. The Andante, built upon the Ukrainian folksong Sidel Vanya, was deeply affecting, triste yet achingly melodious. The Scherzo has the feel of a Cossack folk tune and was infectious in its driving rhythm, sudden dynamic variations, and ringing resonances filling the hall with a lively tune. The finale, Allegro giusto, highlighted Ébène’s wonderfully precise tempo modulations, ending on a flying final tempo that was musically just but hardly the usual definition of “allegro.” Throughout, Ébène demonstrated remarkable cohesion and ensemble playing with precisely marked phrasings, bowings, and articulations.

We returned from intermission for a selection of innovative pieces for string quartet, many in arrangements by Richard Héry, and all available on Ébène’s 2011 album, Fiction. The set started with Raphaël Merlin’s varieties of pizzicati as soon as the quartet were seated – the opening to its cover of Wayne Shorter’s Footprints.  Next came Nature Boy (re-creating the Miles Davis tune). The quartet then offered up Misirlou Twist, recasting music from Quentin Tarantino’s film, Pulp Fiction, and proudly wearing influences from French mid-century jazz and Astor Piazzolla. Brad Mehldau’s Unrequited took the music on another tack, being a slower number. Then the quartet’s own arrangement of “another quartet,” as Raphaël Merlin characterized the piece: Come Together by the Beatles. As an encore, we heard Un jour mon Prince viendra, which included the quartet members singing as well as playing. Quatuor Ébène brought the same mastery of ensemble playing and precision, the same passionate feeling and intensely musical phrasing, to these works as to the classical offerings on the first half.

Classical music aficionados frequently voice concern about crossover artists being influenced by music outside the classical sphere; the fear is that the quality of classical musicianship will decline. The Ébène Quartet gives the lie to this hoary chestnut. Its work in jazz and more contemporary music in no way detracts from its classical music credentials. If anything, it amplifies them. The players bring new life to string quartets in the canonical repertoire through their work as an ensemble and through their heightened sense of listening. Jazz musicians talk of having a “monster ear,” the ability to hear everything happening onstage during a performance coupled with the ability to respond immediately to what one hears. Western classical music has moved away from improvisation (Anton Bruckner was famous for his improvisatory skills on organ, to give one random example), and this skill has become the province of other musical genres. Classical music audiences have started to worry about “purity” (a fraught term, indeed). There is true, and enviable, art in listening intently during performance and responding on the fly to create mesmerizing performances: witness Quatuor Ébène.

Cashman Kerr Prince is trained in Classics and Comparative Literature and is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College.  He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.

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