Founded in 1999 by students of the Boulogne-Billancourt Conservatory in France, collecting one important prize after another almost from since its beginnings, the Quatuor Ébène is widely recognized in Europe as one of the foremost chamber ensembles of its generation. Regretfully it’s still not known enough on this side of the Atlantic. On Tuesday night, there were many empty seats in the smallish Zankel Hall, but those attending were fortunate enough to witness an astounding performance juxtaposing French 20th-century repertoire with one of Beethoven’s Middle Quartets.

Quatuor Ébène © Julien Mignot
Quatuor Ébène
© Julien Mignot

Marcel Proust once wrote to his friend Gabriel Fauré that he was “intoxicated by his music”. Obviously, he was not referring to Fauré’s last work, a string quartet composed in 1923-1924, after Proust’s death, but that is a feeling one can share listening to the Ébène Quartet’s rendering of the musical ebb and flow, full of meandering details with no theme fully crystallized, no sweeping melodies and no big contrasts. From the first movement’s opening theme, intoned by violist Marie Chilemme (proving during the entire evening to be a perfectly integrated new member of the ensemble) to the work’s rousing E major conclusion, the musicians navigated with confidence through all the subtly ambiguous harmonies and constantly changing dynamics. They beautifully rendered the pervasive nostalgia ingrained in this music, the ensemble quickly leveling any individual attempt to escape the overall gloom.

The Fauré and Dutilleux string quartets, lone essays in the genre for both creators, do share a common air despite being composed half a century apart. Commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation for the Juilliard Quartet in 1977, the three-movement Ainsi la nuit is rarely performed despite featuring an original vein of Modernism, quite different from those promoted by Messiaen or Boulez. In a discussion about “progressive growth”, his compositional procedure of which Ainsi la nuit is a main example, Dutilleux did mention thinking about Proust when working on this music, full of fragmentary reminiscences and forward-looking snippets, as obsessively making room for themselves as the famous “petite phrase” in Vinteuil’s fictional sonata. A careful listener could observe how, beyond this nocturnal vision affected by few elements of turbulence, the Ébène foursome animated an entire universe, characterized by gradual harmonic and thematic developments where mirroring little phrases or far-flung self-references are widely present. Divided into seven barely separated movements, Ainsi la nuit is full of little bits of music passed from one instrument to another, sometimes unchanged, occasionally morphing into something else, so that listeners are constantly unsure if they did or they didn’t hear them before.

Beethoven’s E Minor Quartet, played after the interval, is quite omnipresent in chamber music performances, so the Ébène’s rendition had to compete against a multitude of other versions stored in the listeners’ affective memory. Overall, the level of coordination, both rhythmical and tonal, was truly remarkable and so was the musicianship. One could have wished for a more Romantic, passionate approach than the quasi-analytical one offered here. Cellist Raphaël Merlin could have been a tad more assertive in his dialogues with Pierre Colombet, the quartet’s outstanding first violinist, during the Allegro. However, the hymnlike quality of the Molto Adagio music was wonderfully brought forward and the Allegretto had the proper balance between fragility and playfulness. Listening to the Finale: Presto, I remembered that ébène means ebony in English. The qualities of this hardwood, its toughness under a very smooth finish, were clearly transferred into the foursome’s interpretation.

What makes the Ébène Quartet truly special, besides the unbridled enthusiasm and the intensity with which they approach the classical repertoire, is their openness to other types of music that informs their interpretation of the canon. As an example of their other interests and keeping with a tradition preventing them from offering a classical encore, the interpreters delighted the audience with several minutes of jazzy improvisations, inspired by Miles Davis’ Milestones.

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