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Audiences, Fictions, Réalités: Ebony and Crossing Over


Raphaël Merlin (Brian Wise photo)
Raphaël Merlin (Brian Wise photo)

One of the leading French quartets, and one of our own favorite foursomes, will be making its Celebrity Series of  Boston debut Friday Feb. 28th at Jordan Hall. The Quatuor Ebène, named in homage to ebony the wood as well as to many of their favorite jazzmen, will be playing an arresting mix of classical and not. BMInt had a most interesting and enjoyable conversation with cellist Raphaël Merlin.

FLE: In your forthcoming Boston concert, we know your first half consists of Mozart’s Quartet in E-flat Major K.428 and Bartok’s Quartet No. 3, and for them BMInt contributor Zoe Kemmerling has written interesting notes [here]. But the second half will be mostly jazz from your Fiction album.

RM: Let’s agree to call it jazz even if some of what we play will be closer to world music or pop. I can’t tell you exactly what we it will be in the second half; it’s our practice to announce the “jazzy” pieces from the stage.

I really loved Fiction. On “Some Day My Prince Will Come” there’s some wonderful singing. Was that the four of you?

Thank you. Yes, we did it. It’s something we rarely do, but it’s really fun, and it’s another way of making quartets. Even though it’s only a few seconds of music, we worked on this pretty hard. Two of us, Mathieu and Gabriel, are talented singers. And we write out ourselves every arrangement that we play, because that’s a condition we need in order to keep the quality high. We know better than any other arranger what our limits might be.

In our next crossover project, which will be called “Brazil,” there are also some quartet singing moments. For us it’s very natural. When you learn to play a stringed instrument, your teacher always tells you to sing with it. In this way, when we actually sing with our voices, it’s exactly the same as playing with our instruments. And of course at a conservatory in France you can’t avoid solfège.

Is that based on the tune “Brazil” or the cult movie?

Both! The tune which was used will be part of the record in a long and experimental arrangement. We also like the movie very much. The entire record is dedicated to South American musics, mostly Brazilian-influenced (bossa novas, sambas, etc.). And also “Pau Brazil,” a Portuguese name first given at the conquistadors’ time, originally means “ember-wood stick,” because of this red wood they first found on today’s Pernambuco State coasts. This special wood is the one from which our bows are made.

So this is your third performance here in Boston. In the first two, at Harvard Musical Association, you played old masters and a soon-to-be old master, Bartok. You’re famous for playing jazz, but seemingly do not play a lot of new music in the Darmstadt School, the difficult new music. Is that true, or am I just missing it?

It is pretty much true. Not because we don’t want to but probably because we aren’t as interested in these in comparison with other composers. We also need to combine our four different sensibilities, to find something we really want to do together deeply. We’re much more inclined to be active not only in jazz but also in more popular music, and to use this connection to make the string quartet sound available in some less fancy settings. It may be stupid, but we feel there is already enough with the great masters of the past, which we love to play and with which we are absolutely fascinated. I’m thinking about Haydn, Beethoven, Bartok, Ravel, and Brahms, etc. We already feel that the audience we have is not very often young people and it’s not very often people who don’t already well know opera or orchestra or classical piano. It seems that the string quartet comes at the end of the process of being cultured, if you know what I mean. That’s great to us because we are very often playing for expert listeners, very educated, just like the audience at the Harvard Musical Association. But we feel we need to bring the art of the string quartet to different populations.

Also, we want to play what we enjoy. And 20th-century music is so brilliant; it was the most revolutionary time ever, because everything became mixed together, the world became so small, since recording techniques allowed anybody on earth to listen to a composer living 20,000 kilometers away. That’s what makes it so interesting. We are used to playing some, not Darmstadt, but we’ve played Schoenberg, Webern and Berg, and we’ve also played living composers like Bruno Mantovani, Canat de Chizy (French composers), or Wolfgang Rihm. We rarely play these pieces simply because when you play a hundred concerts a year, it is a long commitment to just learn one new piece, for instance for a world premiere. We want to finish our reach for the top of the historical repertoire—the complete Bartok or the complete Beethoven, et cetera, before we will have enough time to put aside for the modern works.

It’s a very interesting question. I wouldn’t tell you we won’t ever do more-contemporary pieces; I wish we would. This is something we need to explore more and more. But right now we already have one jazz project, and we are also running a South American project. Who knows what’s next? Maybe something more electro…. But that constitutes only 15% or 20% of our activity; 80% of our time we are in fact working on composers like Beethoven and Bartok.

To me what makes your playing distinctive is that it has not only Romantic urgency and tenderness but also clarity and drama at the same time. I don’t think of that as French. French playing is more restrained and intellectual, according to stereotype. I think your playing is very emotional and I wonder if it’s because of that that you can’t find the emotion in some of the newest music, the more abstract music.

That may be a reason. I think it is also very easily connected to the masters we are used to working with. For instance, we’ve spent very much time with Hungarian musicians like Gabor Takács-Nagy or György Kurtág and we are still seeing our mentor in Berlin, Eberhard Feltz, who is deeply East German in his sensitivity. This has had an interesting influence on our playing. It doesn’t mean we disrespect the French school of playing. We love that warmth of sound, and as you say, something maybe more delicate, but we are always looking for the way you feel when you are improvising. We need that feeling also when playing the standard repertoire. Maybe it brings something which you are calling sensitive emotions. I don’t know; maybe I’m not the best judge.

Has anyone in France ever said that your playing is too emotional, not French enough?

That could have happened, of course. You always find people who expect more sobriety. I think going beyond good taste is not possible if you keep good proportions and good quality. I think taste mistakes usually go together with some problems of balance, which results for instance in too much of the principal parts coming out and not enough accompaniment—things like that.

Meaning that in Haydn the first violin is always the soloist, less so in later quartets. That’s not the problem, is it?

It’s true, and on the other hand there is no conductor, no continuo. The way you would play the bass in a Haydn quartet has to be at least 25% of the responsibility or maybe 100% of the responsibility of the entire reserve, with surely not more than 25% of the power. Maybe much less. But the way you would involve your two requirements—your driving, your stability of rhythm and intonation—this is absolutely necessary to make the principal line come out effectively and to sound beautiful and expressive. String quartets, beginning with Haydn and Boccherini, have to be the first-ever democratic ensemble music writing.

It is very similar to the new politics and philosophical ideas at that time, which were about making all of the humans equal, and can be heard from the first quartet by Haydn onward, when there is singing nearly all the time. Everyone in the quartet has to sing with Haydn—sing through him. It’s not only accompaniment, not only bringing nice clothes to a beautiful body. It’s really being part of the same body.

Part of the Enlightenment.


Going back to your style, you don’t sound anything like the Ysaÿe String Quartet, your mentors for a number of years.

We started with them; while they didn’t have a major influence on us stylistically, psychologically they were very important. They were the first teachers really to encourage our young adventure. We were very young, some of us under 20, and we didn’t know what line our careers would take. Would we be orchestra players, soloists, teachers? They just felt that we should work hard at the quartet repertoire together. Even if we don’t go down that path, the literature represents one of the best schools for being able to execute well while listening carefully to what others are doing. The Ysaÿe created the most important string quartet class in France, and we were very happy to be assimilated by them.

But indeed, their style, which is maybe more French, was great, yet we felt closer to the Hungarian teachers I mentioned, or the German ones. We felt that was to be our direction. The way you would produce the sound with the bow tension with the articulations—that’s fundamental. It was very important for us to look into the Baroque style and the German approach itself.

But in terms of style you sound more late 19th century than Baroque. You play with tons of rubato—that’s unusual, and I love it. Did that come from your Hungarian teachers? Have you listened to a lot of old recordings?

We very much like to listen to the old recordings. In general we don’t like the modern way of playing if it comes from any sort of doctrinaire school. But it’s true that we are very concerned about the way of making the phrase, taking some liberty in the timing … rubato is not only fantasy. It’s something that’s organic, breathing deeply into the consciousness of the pulsation. When you’re just getting faster, it seems like you have to give back the time you stole. It’s very important to have the listener feel where the biggest tension in the phrase will come.

You also have more portamento than many of today’s quartets.

Really? I’m not aware of that, but it comes from the singing approach. You can’t really sing without some portamento. But what about a pianist? How do they create the tension of the interval? They have to create the illusion of how a voice goes from one note to the other, and that probably proves portamento is not necessary to create the effect.

Are there any old quartets that you particularly listen to?

Maybe Quartetto Italiano. Busch Quartet is very important. The Vegh Quartet is important, even if that’s more coming from their rhythmic stability than their sound expression. The Italiano is a good example of pure legato—it’s not necessarily the strongest ensemble playing, but there’s an expressivity in their sostenuto.

Going back to what makes you different from so many other quartets, it is partially your emotional engagement, but it’s also in your choice of venues. You bring quartets to places where there aren’t often quartets. You recorded your jazz DVD, Fiction in the Folies Bergère—did you actually perform there also?

I think we’re the only string quartet in France that has played there.

Were there dancing girls?

Quatuor Ebène (Brian Wise photo)
Quatuor Ebène (Brian Wise photo)

No, none at all! It was a pure concert, though with a drummer and singers—that was all we had. The audience was still pretty the same as if we had been playing at the Théâtre du Châtelet, but it was the way of making that happening closer to the popular-music listener of Paris. We try to reach those people.

I spoke earlier about the popular music we do, principally the jazz arrangements. For instance, when we played the program based on Fiction in Berlin, in a jazz club called the ‘A Trane’, where many famous jazz players had played, I told the listeners that we had a concert the next day at the Philharmonie, with Mozart, Bartok, and Mendelssohn. A good number of young Berliners came to that concert the next day and afterward told us it was the first time in their lives that they had gone to a classical concert—and they told us they had really enjoyed it. We’re really proud about that. Even if we introduced only four people on earth, it means that thanks to this other side of our music, we made some converts, but without mixing everything. What makes a Mozart quartet absolutely beautiful? One of the first conditions would be that it comes in pure silence, which only the classical concert halls can provide. At any other venue there is always noise. This may be the best definition of classical music—music that demands silence.

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  1. Since first having heard this quartet in Ozawa Hall, at Tanglewood a couple of years ago, I cannot forget the elan, vitality, and marvelous musicality in their playing. And improvising! Not to be missed!

    Comment by Robert Meyers — February 24, 2014 at 10:48 pm

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