Quatuor Ébène made a sensational debut at Maverick Concerts in Woodstock two summers ago. On the weekend of August 18th -19th the ensemble returned with two programs, starting with a Saturday evening jazz performance (which I regret having had to miss while instead pursuing a rare live performance of Lili Boulanger’s music at Bard College). Sunday afternoon, Quatuor Ébène gave a classical concert which demonstrated the group’s considerable strengths but also some surprising musical weaknesses.
The program opened with Mozart’s Divertimento in F, K. 138, a work as often performed by string orchestras as by quartets. It’s one of a group of three such works Mozart wrote when he was 16, meaning it’s already pretty good Mozart. It deserves a better performance than it received here. The ensemble’s playing was crisp, lively, and well coordinated. It was not well balanced, the viola — at least from the back of the hall — being frequently underbalanced or inaudible. (Mathieu Herzog showed himself elsewhere to be a strong player. But here he should have reminded us that, when playing in string quartets, Mozart’s favorite instrument was the viola.) Strong dynamic contrasts and very sharp articulation sometimes drew attention to themselves, to the detriment of the music. And the tempo for the final Presto was obviously too fast, giving the music a hectic quality which was completely inappropriate.
Such sensationalism would have been completely out of place in the subtle music of Fauré, and fortunately it disappeared. The String Quartet in E Minor, Op. 121, was the composer’s last work, and like much of his late music, it is exquisitely beautiful to hear without being very affecting, like seeing a beautiful object under glass. The ensemble seemed very responsive and appropriate in this relatively unfamiliar music. I haven’t heard the piece in a while, but as far as I could tell this was a completely successful performance and it certainly held my attention.
There are opportunities to exaggerate all over Tchaikovsky’s music. Quatuor Ébène took only a few of them in the String Quartet No. 1, in D, Op. 11. The performance was generally vigorous and propulsive — good qualities for Tchaikovsky, and the famous Andante cantabile was affectingly sung. I’m not sure the ensemble’s relatively light (French?) sound was the best for the music, since I’m used to a heartier sound from Russian and American players in Tchaikovsky. The final movement was the least successful. Both violinists, who had sounded fine throughout most of the concert, had long episodes of shrill tone, and as in the Mozart finale a very fast tempo led to some hectic moments. The final coda threatened to go out of control; it didn’t, but it was clearly too fast.
This was quite a short program, timing out at just over 65 minutes. As an encore, QE played the opening movement of Mozart’s Divertimento in D, K. 136. It was the most unsuccessful performance of the afternoon, taken at a tempo so fast that the violin passagework sounded more like Paganini than Mozart.
The positive qualities of this ensemble, especially its ability to give us refined, subtle Fauré, indicate great promise for its future. Right now, though, Quatuor Ébène needs to get off musical steroids.