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6.2.12

Mozart Woche Salzburg: “You must hear Ébène!”

Very few musicians are so good that a less-than-starry performance doesn’t affect how we think of them. Once we have identified them, though, we hear (or imagine) the difference between general ho-hum and a one-off. Mediocre Mahler won’t deter me from seeing Andris Nelsons as one of the conductors of our time. Non-committal Schubert will not alter my admiration for Alexandre Tharaud as the most wonderful pianist for musical miniatures of all sorts. And the Quatuor Ébène, since first hearing them at the Corcoran Gallery in 2006, have been favorites for their appeal to intellect and heart alike; for their combination of delicate refinement and raw energy. Even in a time of unprecedented talent and quality in string quartets, they still stand out as truly special to audiences and critics alike. Mitsuko Uchida, excitedly cajoling a New Yorker critic, summed it up: “You must hear Ébène!” She goes further than just ‘hearing Ébène’, too, she plays with them—as on this occasion—with great, visible delight.

Physical and mental exhaustion take a toll and the last time I heard the quartet (in that secret Bavarian chamber-music outpost Gauting) the musical results of Haydn et al., for all the underlying qualities, were smudged. Almost a year later, now at Salzburg’s MozartWeek, they re-emerged to my ears fresh, quickened, and in all their subtle glory.

available at Amazon
W.A.Mozart, String Quartets K421 & 465, Divertimento K138,
Quatuor Ébène
Virgin Classics

Mozart’s Quartet K421 in d-minor was long-stranded and with furor behind a veneer of lightness and transparency; its dissonances more spice than tragic. The four Frenchmen then showed themselves to be truly at home in the furioso of the Menuetto: so not at all just a well behaved little Menuetto, sitting demurely on the chaise longue, entertaining until the finale arrives. No, this was an out-and-about kind of Menuetto, absconding at night to shoot dried peas at stray cats before running home again and pretending to be nicely tucked in come the Allegretto… only to continue mischief once we turn our back. The Allegro was back in church, all innocent with nothing to confess and prone to drift off into thoughts of roaming the fields: yearning, but calm.

It may not have sounded precisely like that to everyone in the sold-out Great Hall of the Mozarteum, but the music sure did come alive in these eight hands.

The Debussy Quartet that followed is musical home-turf for the Ébènes; their debut-recording for Virgin of it a new reference. The work itself is so fine, too, that one doesn’t get tired of hearing it often… still, one cannot help to think what a delight (and what a service to music) it would be if the Ébène also took on quartets off the well-played path—like those of, say, Joseph Jongen. But then again they played Debussy so different and afresh on this occasion, that it sounded like a new-yet-familiar quartet. Wonderfully lithe and with enormous flow rather than ruthlessness, there wasn’t a stale note heard.

The Franck Piano Quintet is a quintessential “bear” in music: long and massive and not easy on the performers. Ursine tendencies notwithstanding, I have yet to hear a more graceful bear than the one the Ébènes and Uchida performed. Not emaciated, certainly not de-clawed, but capable of gentle caressing and careening between the roaring moments, and relentlessly driven. Afterwards Uchida announced that there was a birthday boy in the quartet and performed an encore for the cellist, which ended a matinee of rare quality on a wonderfully light, Mozartean note.