In their third decade of playing together (violist Marie Chilemme joined the ensemble in 2017) the members of the Quatuor Ébène continue to demonstrate on each occasion not only a remarkable tonal and dynamic cohesiveness but also their ability to bring a freshness of approach to even the most familiar works. There is no hint of blasé or routine in any phrase.

Quatuor Ébène
© Pete Checchia

The quartet started their Zankel Hall programme with Mozart’s String Quartet in G major, K387, the first of the series of six that he dedicated to Joseph Haydn. They offered a wonderfully balanced solution to the score’s oscillations between lightness and substantiality, learned complexity and homophonic straightforwardness. The Allegro’s development section was imbued with unexpected melancholy. Thematic material started by one instrument was finished by another with total transparency. The slow third movement had a serene, song-like quality, the dialogue between Pierre Colombet, first violin, and Raphaël Merlin (cello) alternatively sounding joyful and mysterious. The amazing Finale with its double fugato themes (the first one foreshadowing the music of the much later “Jupiter” Symphony) was far from an arid contrapuntal exercise, but full of chromatic colouring and energy.

In a few words prefacing Shostakovich’s String Quartet no. 8 in C minor, Merlin talked about dedicating the performance “to the victims of the war” and admitted that the Quatuor Ébène had never played the piece before their current tour. One could have never guessed it by just observing the self-confidence with which they rendered this masterpiece, which was composed in Dresden in just three days. Initially considered a reference to the horrors of the Second World War, it is now seen as a personal statement of such power that it transcends individual agony to address human despair in general. Navigating from one shade of black to another, the four interpreters imbued their performance with almost unbearable intensity, the omnipresent tonal ambiguities forcefully conveying the gloomy uncertainties of life and death. Every repetition of the four notes D-S-C-H signature became more and more obsessive. References to the composer’s previous works – the opening of the First Symphony, the Second Piano Trio, the First Cello Concerto, the last act of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk – were clearly underlined as was the pervasive presence of another quite sinister cyclic theme, heard in multiple disguises, from the subject of the unyielding fugato in the second movement to a background funeral-like march.

Quatuor Ébène
© Pete Checchia

Interestingly enough, the Ébènes explicitly avoided playing their programme in chronological order, deciding to end the evening with Schumann’s somewhat unassuming String Quartet in F major, Op.41 no.2 (conceived, as the earlier heard Mozart opus, when both composers were enmeshed in studying Haydn’s innovations) and not with Shostakovich’s eerie Eighth. Featuring Merlin’s mellifluous cello, hitting high points in the rendition of the A flat major variations and the brief and funny little Trio, this performance was placed under the sign of charm rather than drama. One could barely perceive any hints of the darkness that would later swallow Schumann’s mind and music. Devoid of blackness, the music still had the smoothness and elegance of an ebony surface. 

*****