Many thanks to Robert R. Reilly for contributing again--and further adding class--to ionarts with this review from the Library of Congress.
On the evening of Friday, March13th, an all-French program was offered in the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress by the young, immensely talented members of the French Quatuor Ébène. For some reason, they chose to change the order of the program as printed, and began, instead of ended, with the Ravel Quartet. This was their only mistake, as I shall presently explain.
Debussy/Fauré/Ravel, String Quartets, Quatuor Ébène
Virgin Classics 519045-2
The playing in the Ravel was perfectly blended. In fact, this was true throughout the entire program. It was hard to tell where one player stopped and the next picked up the musical line unless one was watching, so seamless it was. Also, the full dynamic range within which the Quartet played was anchored in its ability to project sustained, breathtaking pianissimo, which is so important in the allusive whisperings and gentle breezes that flow through this mesmerizing work. Anyone can play forte. The real skill is in capturing moments of hushed, still beauty. By excelling at this, the Ébène made forte mean even more when it let loose in the ecstatic climaxes.
Ravel asks for Tres doux in the first movement and it was sweetly haunting. The second was perfectly shaded and rhythmically alert. Tempos seemed as natural as breathing. The music was soaked in nocturnal mystery and a kind of ineffable yearning. In the third movement, the Ébène toyed with daringly slow tempos to express music captured at the edge of falling asleep into a beautiful dream – or perhaps the whole thing is a delicious dream? In the last movement, the music swirled as if it had been caught up in wind funnels. This was the best performance I have heard of this work.
The perfect is the enemy of the good, as was proven by placing the Fauré Quartet after the Ravel. I hope I will be forgiven for thinking the Fauré is only a good work. As such, it suffered in following the Ravel, which is great. The Fauré has a valedictory glow to it (it was Fauré’s last work) and builds to some intensity in the middle of the second movement. However, its themes are not memorable. As a consequence, the Fauré seemed almost inert – not in the Ébène’s performance, which was highly nuanced, but in its compositional material. The irony is that Ravel dedicated his Quartet to Fauré, his teacher. It is clear that he surpassed him.
Last on the program was the Debussy Quartet, which also glowed in the Ébène’s tonal beauty. It members evinced great precision in their playing, with plenty of snap and crackle when called for, as well as passion. Again, one was impressed by the great dynamic range. Ébène succeeded in mastering the mercurial nature of this music.
After a huge expression of enthusiasm from the audience, the Ébène returned with an amusing encore treat in the from of a vocal quartet recitation of Some Day my Prince Will Come, from Walt Disney’s Snow White, sung in French, however. They then gave the theme a jazz treatment on their instruments. Good fun was had by all.
Count me in for when the outstanding Quatuor Ébène returns to Washington, which I hope will be soon. RRR