This was a weighty programme, no lighter ‘fillers’ to cleanse the palate, yet the intensity and physical power of the performances had the sell-out audience gripped from start to finish. The Quatuor Ébène was joined by fellow Frenchman Gautier Capuçon for Schubert’s great String Quintet in C, D956, and the quartet then followed this in the second half with another giant of the chamber repertoire, Beethoven’s String Quartet Op.130, with the Grosse Fuge, Op.133.

Quatuor Ébène © Julien Mignot
Quatuor Ébène
© Julien Mignot

Schubert wrote his String Quintet in the final months of his life, a period which also brought forth the last three piano sonatas, and the song collection Schwanengesang. It is tempting to add a sense of portent to these last works, but although Schubert was certainly not a well man at this point, his compositional creativity was still blossoming in new ways, if anything hinting at new musical horizons that unfortunately he never lived to explore. He chose a second cello rather than the more conventional second viola, and throughout makes great use of the added bass line, as well as exploiting the lyrical possibilities of two duetting cellos.

The Quatuor Ébène made the most of crescendos to point up the subdued introduction, but then immediately demonstrated the physicality of their style as the Allegro got going, the two violinists almost rising from their seats in unison at points. Yet they can also do light and shade, and the lyrical second subject was intuitively sensitive from the two cellists, in contrast to brittle, almost harshly dramatic accentuations in the development section. They infused the slow movement with wonderful stillness and calm, with impressively pianissimo playing topped by ringing pizzicato from the first violin and cello.

The central section, shifting mysteriously from E major to F minor, was full of turmoil, and as this died away and the calm of the opening returned, angst remained. The slightly keening conversation between violin and cello over sustained chords, as well as a brief attempt to reassert F minor, meant that despite the rich chords of the conclusion, we were left with an unsettling sadness. The Quatuor Ébène swept this away with a full on, almost rustic Scherzo, choosing an effectively brisk tempo. They then gave the central Trio a contrasting darker colour, but the subsequent return from the Trio to the faster Scherzo tempo could have been tidier. Their finale had energy and a sense of fun, with tasteful upbeat lifts accentuating Schubert’s Hungarian inflections. Whilst it doesn’t perhaps have the weight of invention of the earlier movements, the players exploited its dance-like quality, and the variety of exchanges between instruments, the cello duet episode worthy of particular mention. This was a powerfully engaging performance of a great work, performed with great energy and insight.

Much has been written about Beethoven’s mammoth Grosse Fuge, Op.133, and how much his decision to replace it as the final movement of his Op.130 String Quartet for something less challenging was influenced by his publishers and commercial interest. However, the Grosse Fuge has acquired a life of its own, often performed alone, as well as in its original position following the original first five movements of Op.130, as the Quatuor Ébène did here.

The quartet has a heavy structure to keep in check across six movements, and on the whole the young players achieved that here, although they slightly struggled to avoid Beethoven’s almost pathological sudden stops and starts in the central Andante from derailing the overall flow. They took the second movement Presto at breakneck speed, and just pulled this off, using Beethoven’s offbeat accents to create a swaying, almost seasick feel. By the time they reached the Cavatina, they were completely in the zone of this work, with beautifully touching playing, not over-sentimental but rich and almost hymn-like in places.

The closing crying violin line over pulsing accompaniment was highly sensitive, made all the more poignant by the shattering Grosse Fuge to follow. This is on the edge, aggressive music, and once again, the Quatuor Ébène was in full physical flow, the violins almost standing after each up-bow. The late interlude was eerily quiet, and the quirky theme that appears a couple of times towards the end was just tongue-in-cheek enough, before the crashing fugue returned, all players violently digging into the strings. The final full statement of the theme and the concluding bars were as weighty and dramatic as they could be, bringing the players spontaneously to their feet with the final bars. This was a visceral Grosse Fuge, to end an evening of chamber music’s most monumental offerings, performed with impressive power and commitment.