Regarded as one of the best young string quartets around today, the Quatuor Ebène have made a name for themselves with their homogeneity of sound, in equal parts vibrant and mellifluous, and the powerful immediacy of their playing. Hearing them for the third time in this concert, I was no less taken with this or their considerable musicianship, but had my reservations about the prominence of a certain Gallic sensibility in Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht.
Similar treatment given to the introductory sextet from Strauss’s opera Capriccio worked to less problematic effect: there was plenty of that warm glow which comes into its own in late Strauss, and the conversational qualities of the writing were stirred into life with an easy, languid articulacy. The brief outbreak of tumult in the middle sounded uncannily like a surging passage in the slow movement of Debussy’s string quartet, which was fine so long as one laid the contrived aspect of Strauss’s flare-up to one side. Still, seeing this piece performed outside of the orchestra pit for the first time I was struck by how awkwardly much of the writing lies under the hand – a challenge met with spotless accuracy and continuous legato.
Of course with three sextets on the programme we didn’t hear just the Ebènes, and guest artists Antoine Tamestit (viola) and Nicolas Altstaedt (cello) were both fully at one with the quartet’s distinctive identity, which made for some glorious moments in the Tchaikovsky but compounded the basic problem in the Schoenberg. It was interesting to hear a less bleak and foreboding response to the opening of Verklärte Nacht than one normally encounters, and the distant sound and matter-of-fact delivery augured well for a not too premature gathering of momentum. However, there soon followed an abrupt turn to the sweepingly lyrical, which was not only a small disappointment in itself but also rather unfortunately left a marker which the Ebènes felt they had to surpass when Schoenberg transitions to D major. Here the music was made to sound somewhat like Poulenc in one of his self-parodying moments, and though the colouring of the glistening moonlight accomplished closeness to Wagner’s Magic Fire music in Die Walküre, a certain amount of wallowing persisted elsewhere until the end and ensemble was a little too thin at times to support the exaggerated expression.
In the Schoenberg the playing was in no way bad, but Tchaikovsky’s Florentine-inspired String Sextet offered us an opportunity to admire both the quartet’s technical skill and their flair for turning in a detailed and thought-out interpretation. The fervour maintained in the first movement did justice to the lyrical elements in the melodic writing while giving the rhythmic and harmonic turbulence its fullest expression, and when that unsettled state returned in the coda the Ebènes gave us an electrifying intensification to bring the movement to its end. Their touch was just as sure in the slow movement, which transitioned fluently from something of graceful collective bearing to a heated exchange between the players, while the moment of chordal unison in the middle saw the richest full tone of the evening and some well-pointed phrasing. The folkloric elements of the last two movements exuded Slavic character and the closing Allegro vivace made improbable bedfellows of stylistic refinement and unbridled exuberance. A masterful performance.
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