It would be difficult indeed to imagine an evening of string quartet playing at once more diverse and more brilliant than this. Already one of the world’s finer quartets after only a few years in the public eye, the Quatuor Ebène are notable for their catholic tastes. Music, after all, is music, and there is no need to divide genres as we have done for so long, nor sneer at those who try to bring them together. The Ebènes have often taken to giving jazz encores, but this concert went a step further, going from mid-period Mozart to an a cappella version of Snow White’s ‘Someday my prince will come’ in barbershop French, with searing late Beethoven and snippets from Kind of Blue in between.

Quatuor Ebène, © Julien Mignot
Quatuor Ebène,
© Julien Mignot

Two points came out strongly for this listener (and in this concert, more than most, opinions might have diverged – certainly several people left one or two numbers into the second half set). First, a knowledge of and a proficiency in diverse forms and soundworlds has been greatly beneficial to this quartet – as it should be for all, players and audience alike. It was hard not to rethink the Ebènes’ performances of the Mozart and Beethoven in light of the second half. Second, Beethoven emerged triumphant as he so often does: there is even more to be found in his late works when that great music is placed in the company of kindred spirits otherwise considered worlds apart.

Mozart’s K421 quartet opened the concert. Sighing in, barely audible, this was Mozart seen through Beethoven’s eyes: tense, compressed, with all the grace one could hope for but balanced by a furious intensity. The first movement in particular was delivered with a mix of brooding and carefree lyricism, at almost Webernesque levels of concision and concentration. And even if this is not the D minor of Don Giovanni’s inferno, the Ebènes certainly were keen to emphasise that this is a quartet in which Mozart is more teary than usual, his smiles struggling to break through. Here the Ebènes displayed their admirable blend of tone, strikingly smooth and unitary even when compared to groups like the Takàcs Quartet. Their Gallic sense of flexiblity with tempo and phrasing (the cliché, here, is unavoidable) lends even the most ‘classical’ of works an unerringly natural flow.

This paid spectacular dividends in the great Op. 131 quartet: surely there is no more stringent test of a quartet’s abilities, with all Beethoven’s pyrotechnics necessitating an even greater focus on the architectural needs of his extended structure. Another breathy, daringly slow entrance – the Ebènes are far from afraid to take unhedged risks – introduced the first-movement fugue, which rightly looked forward to the pains of Shostakovich whilst longing for the sure faith of Bach. Throughout, Beethoven and the Ebènes seemed to be attempting to out-dare one another in improvisatory ingenuity, indeed in emotional ardour too. The horrifying climax of the fugue, lent into with portamento and bursting out of its formal shackles, seemed balmed by the initially relaxing sway of the second movement, but that too was driven to a shredded madness. The Ebènes controlled the changing moods of the varying slow movement expertly, their lofty (and often nutty) pleasures fleeting even at this length. Synthesis of tone was maintained still in the massive contrasts of the fifth movement, Beethoven’s increasingly unbalanced febrility illustrated by ever more brave playing. The lamenting sixth seemed to bemoan an inevitable conflagration before the event: in the finale that promised battle finally came. This was no headlong dash for the finish as with so many quartets, nor a mere epilogue. Bows fraying, vibrato often stilted, and with a tone pushed beyond this quartet's prodigious limits, here instead was an almost Mahlerian struggle between rapture and the irredeemable. It may not have been clear which won, but the performance's quality was plain enough.

As cellist Raphaël Merlin explained during the second half, a jazz encore would simply be impossible after the Beethoven in normal circumstances, particularly this Beethoven, but following an intermission it seemed rather appropriate. Eight pieces plus the Snow White encore made up a set. They were mostly arranged by the Ebènes themselves, and all but the Miles Davis numbers are audible on their album ‘Fiction’. Far from sounding in any way wrong, the possibilities of a string quartet were shown to be boundless. Who, after all, needs percussion or a guitar when you have a decent pair of dress shoes and a good bowing technique? And there wasn’t just jazz, though the Davis (‘All Blues’ and ‘So What’), Mehldau (‘Unrequited’), and Cole (‘Nature Boy’) were delivered with passionate invention and just the right dash of haughty disdain. The theme tune from Pulp Fiction and even Lennon and McCartney’s ‘Come Together’ also made an appearance. With these pieces, it was clear where the Quatuor Ebène’s astonishing communicative abilities come from. And if they help the quartet play Beethoven like they did beforehand, nobody should stop them.

*****