Recordings inevitably make you curious about the individual artist or the ensemble in question: can they actually deliver in person whatever might be enhanced through the powers of technology? I have admired Quatuor Ébène ever since I came across its interpretations of those great French quartets (Debussy, Fauré, Ravel) and, more recently, its Beethoven Around the World project. So I approached this recital of major quartets by Haydn, Janáček and Schumann with both feverish anticipation and some uncertainty. I needn’t have worried.

Quatuor Ébène
© Julien Mignot

These players perform almost telepathically: without nods, gestures or audible breaths they will their individual voices into an immediate blend which stuns by way of its unanimity and immaculate intonation. Eye contact was hardly maintained save for a series of knowing smiles from violist Marie Chilemme in the works by Haydn and Janáček, though curiously absent in the concluding Schumann quartet. I did wonder slightly about the ordering of the programme: by any reckoning the Janáček is the most dramatic and ground-breaking of the three. However, I concluded that Quatuor Ébène was probably reluctant to send its audience home on a note of dolour, so having two relatively genial and sunny works framing an extended Existentialist cry of anguish made better emotional sense. 

The set of Op.20 quartets by Haydn is highly innovative. Written in 1772 at a time of political and social ferment, there are several striking structural features in the fourth, in D major. Of the three variations in the slow movement with concertante parts for the four players, the first features second violin and viola, the second cello and the third first violin. The ending of the final movement is itself a surprise: it simply evaporates into thin air. Here, Quatuor Ébène excelled in the helter-skelter scales, adopting an infectious devil-take-the-hindmost attitude, a whirligig of fun and high spirits representing the essence of a Haydnesque romp. Earlier, this quartet honoured the ebony in its name with much dark-hued and elegant phrasing, marred only by Pierre Colombet’s slightly over-forceful first violin, not present later.

Quite a few musical works take their inspiration from literature, but there is only one which draws on a literary piece that was itself based on an earlier musical opus. Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata is an utterly harrowing piece. Despite the argument that Janáček’s recreation of this psychodrama is not programme music, I find this quartet full of volatile moods in the separate voices, its turbulent flux frequently taking the breath away in its many audacious effects. In this performance, superbly controlled yet with absolute emotional commitment, many details caught the ear. The sul ponticello effects of Gabriel Le Magadure’s second violin and Marie Chilemme’s viola in the second movement were nerve-jangling, setting the teeth on edge as the presentiment of catastrophe imposed itself. There are few pieces in which the sonic palette is stretched quite so amazingly: the huge collective sound of Quatuor Ébène far exceeded what one might expect from four solo instruments.

After that I confess to feeling a sense of anti-climax in the Schumann quartet. It has little of the encroaching darkness present in the composer’s late works, but charms instead with a melodic simplicity not over-burdened by excessive sentiment or decoration. The polished satiny sheen impressed most of all, conjuring up a salon full of Biedermeier furniture, with glints and gleams as the sunlight caught the gilded details. In the playful Scherzo, the rich and honeyed tones of Raphaël Merlin’s cello provided a soigné counterpoint to the capricious discourse before the briskly played Finale painted a vivid picture of couples skipping and tripping down an ornate staircase.