By Perry Tannenbaum
SAVANNAH – Celebrated for their recordings of Fauré, Debussy, and Ravel, the Quatuor Ébène has shown itself to be equally comfortable in repertoire by Haydn, Mozart, Bartók, the Mendelssohn siblings, Jobim, Piazzolla, Sting, and Erroll Garner. The French string quartet is currently touring the U.S. with new infusions of Beethoven, culminating in an all-Beethoven program at Carnegie Hall on March 31 and a Beethoven-Debussy mix at the Kimmel Center six nights later.
Yet Savannah Music Festival artistic director Rob Gibson and violinist Daniel Hope, the festival’s associate artistic director for classical programming, could legitimately claim a coup for the Ébène’s return to Savannah, where they had played an all-French program in 2011. Wowed by the quartet’s performance of the Ravel, Hope had prevailed upon the Ebène to join him and pianist Simon Crawford-Phillips in Ernest Chausson’s Concert in D for Violin, Piano, and String Quartet.
Prior to intermission, the program foreshadowed what New Yorkers will hear on March 31 at Carnegie: Beethoven’s String Quartet in B-flat, Op. 18, No. 6, followed by his String Quartet No. 11 in F minor, Op. 95 (Serioso).
The Quatuor Ébène performances at Trinity United Methodist Church were astonishing. Part of the wonder, no doubt, was the church’s acoustics, even friendlier to strings than to vocal or keyboard performances – though I’ve never heard its gilded organ pipes in action.
More decisive were the ensemble’s creamy approach to the harmonized sections of the score, the conversational interplay of the musicians, and the sheer excellence of first violinist Pierre Colombet. Of the recent surveys I’ve listened to, only the Belcea Quartet comes close in their recording of the B-flat Quartet (No. 6) to matching the relish that Ébène took in the harmonious ritardandos of the opening Allegro con brio movement, which usually sound like lulls between the fireworks. That same attention to detail was also evident within those fireworks as the quartet zestfully leapt upon the opening exposition, varying tempos and dynamics with precision.
Adrien Boisseau sounded buoyant when he peeped in on viola, and the dialogue between Colombet and cellist Raphaël Merlin was even richer, the first responses by the cello playful and the last answer delivered with abrupt, prankish ferocity. Colombet’s artistry was more exquisite in the ensuing Adagio, as he floated above the soft accompanying trio before landing with a couple of delicate pizzicato chords.
In the bubbly Scherzo, Colombet and second violinist Gabriel Le Magadure drove the music, darting around unpredictably while the lower strings were restrained. In the Malinconia section of the final movement, slow and darkly harmonized, Merlin’s cello was especially morose as the instrumental lines diverged, until Colombet ignited a quicker, folksier tempo.
With the onset of the opening Allegro con brio of Op. 95, the Quatuor Ébène emphatically let us know, in a stunning wave of collective turbulence, that their most intense ferocity and flame-throwing still lay ahead. Not immediately, of course, for middle Beethoven is ever mercurial, and we’re never sure if he’s wickedly mischievous with his surprises or divinely deranged.
Quiet returned throughout the mournful Allegretto, beginning with Merlin’s lachrymose intro on cello, transitioning to a fugal section launched by Boisseau’s viola, and growing exquisitely slow and eerie with Colombet softly ascending the treble. Now came the time for peak ferocity, a final fury somehow kept in reserve, in the signature Allegro assai vivace ma serioso movement. Even when I knew another sforzando was coming, it came with a jolt. Lacking the same fury as the Serioso movement, the concluding Larghetto-Allegretto might have been sorely anticlimactic if it weren’t so melodious and joyful, the contagious tune handed to each of the musicians as part of the jocund farewell.
A kind of closure with Beethoven will happen April 1 when the Dover Quartet follows the last of Mozart’s Prussian quartets with two late Beethovens, No. 13 in B-flat and the Grosse Fuge. Cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han add a charming coda April 3 when they perform the 12 Variations on Handel’s “See the Conqu’ring Hero” in the middle of a program that includes pieces by Bach, Shostakovich, and Rachmaninoff.
All of these will be challenged to eclipse Hope, Crawford-Phillips, and the Quatuor Ebène in Chausson’s Concert in D. After three harsh opening chords from Crawford-Phillips, the quartet’s entry was happily ominous, still restless when the piano part suddenly became rhapsodic. Hope soared above this conflict, and while the quartet – individually and collectively – continued to make telling contributions, it was Hope and Crawford-Phillips, playing off each other, who built to a climax of resounding joy — ecstatic, yearning, and sweet.
In the splendor that followed, the Quatuor Ebène ran the gamut from orchestral might to mute passivity. These extremes were crystallized in the final Très animé.
At “Beethoven and Beyond, Part II,” Hope and Crawford-Phillips came close to topping themselves – with Keith Robinson playing cello – in Shostakovich’s harrowing Piano Concerto No. 2. Prior to the concert, Gibson revealed that the festival’s 2018 slate had been set. He divulged only two tantalizing bookings: Pinchas Zukerman is on the guest list and, after taking over the reins of leadership from Sir Roger Norrington, Daniel Hope is bringing the Zurich Chamber Orchestra to Savannah.
Note: For information on all the quartet’s concerts here, visit http://quatuorebene.tumblr.com/tour.
Perry Tannenbaum regularly covers the performing arts scene in Charlotte, N.C., for Creative Loafing and CVNC. His CD and concert reviews have also appeared in American Record Guide and JazzTimes.