Quatuor Ebène have earned a fine reputation and not a few awards over the last decade or so, for their work not only in classical music, but also in the contemporary, jazz, and crossover varieties. This Wigmore Hall recital closed a European tour, and perhaps in deference to the Hall’s status we were given an impeccably classical programme, with a Mozart and Beethoven quartet in the first half, followed by the Ravel quartet, an early calling card of the Ebène of which they made a prize-winning recording. Beethoven’s work is called "Quartetto Serioso" but that soubriquet could equally apply to Mozart’s only mature minor key quartet. So we had a rather sombre classical first half, followed by the one of the most classical of 20th-century quartets.

Quatuor Ébène © Julien Mignot
Quatuor Ébène
© Julien Mignot

Mozart’s D minor work compelled our attention from the first bar of its opening Allegro moderato, with the plunging octave from the first violin that launches the unsettled main subject. Both in that and the songful second subject we were kept aware of the throbbing, troubled background. The intensity rarely abated throughout the movement, or indeed the evening. The emotional tension continued through the Andante, with its dissonant stabs in its central section. The Allegretto is of course the expected courtly minuet, but here its elegance never quite lightened its prevailing seriousness. The finale’s variations on a 6/8 siciliano theme were all expertly characterised, even if this meant at times the impressively athletic first violin of Pierre Colombet was more astringent than sweet in tone.

Beethoven's Quartetto Serioso has a first movement marked Allegro con brio and the dynamic is a single forte. Here – as so often in live performance - it sounded as if the composer had written "Con tutta forza" and ff. The headlong tempo and unaninimity of attack of the Quatuor Ebène was very striking indeed as we were hurled into the movement’s often violent course. There was only modest respite in the Allegretto second movement, which has some knotty counterpoint and questing tonal shifts. The third movement returned us to the unsettled mood of the opening, which carried on through the restless finale. It seemed all over so soon after beginning – Op.95 is Beethoven’s shortest quartet – and the execution was relentlessly committed, at times ferocious. These players are unafraid of a rasping sound in the more forceful passages. The ‘Serioso’ title was Beethoven’s own choice but I doubt he mistakenly believed it was the Italian for ‘bad-tempered’, which is how such an interpretation could sound in less skilful hands perhaps. There could perhaps be room for some group to rethink this now standard interpretation of the F minor quartet. But if you like it that way, you would certainly have loved this account.

After an interval which some of us were glad to have reached unscathed after such a stormy first half, we had a work of about the same vintage as Wigmore Hall itself – the building opened in 1901, the Ravel quartet was finished in 1903. It is nearly a decade since the Quatour Ebène made their widely praised disc of the Ravel (with a different viola player, who was replaced in 2015). That interpretation was largely unchanged in terms of tempi, but many intriguing details have been rethought – or perhaps were just spontaneously varied in this live performance. Certainly the Quatuor Ebène did not sound for a moment as if they were going through the motions of an over-familiar party-piece. Rather they pulled off the trick of making this evergreen work of the young Ravel sound newly discovered. Partly this was because they so clearly listen to each other and respond to a colleague’s nuance of phrasing or dynamic.

The opening Allegro moderato was indeed très doux, and the flying pizzicato sections of the second movement were equally très rythmé – no quarrel here with observance of the composer’s markings. The tempo of the slow movement too was properly très lent, and the quotes from earlier in the work were recalled with true Ravelian tendresse. The players seemed almost reluctant to take their leave of this exquisite music, which allows each individual to shine at certain points. They each delivered, with the relatively new violist, Adrien Boisseau, making some particularly alluring contributions. They plunged into the finale’s 5/8 start with gusto, kept the juxtaposed 5-beat and 3-beat bars nicely airborne, and ended with a sense of affirmation that shouted “There you are – that’s how the Ravel quartet should go!”

These brilliant young Frenchmen celebrated the last night of their tour with an encore of Miles Davis, suitably ‘cool’ both in arrangement and performing style. But the gallic chic and the ‘Grapelli effect’ of a violin replacing a trumpet, gave it a delightful sense of ‘Hot Club de Wigmore Hall’.