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Dip Your Ears, No. 96

available at Amazon
Debussy/Fauré/Ravel, String Quartets, Quatuor Ébène
Virgin Classics 519045-2

The Quatuor Ébène have left audiences moved, enthralled, excited – wherever they have appeared. They have turned impartial critics into groupies and conservative audiences into Jazz-fans, and along the way they’ve convinced the EMI / Virgin record company to sign them to an exclusive contract. I loved the luxurious releases on the Mirare label (and wish Virgin would lavish similar attention on the presentation of the Ébène’s releases), but moving from a boutique label to one of the big players is certainly a move that can only help bring the quartet to yet more audiences. A good thing, too, because their first release is a hit that deserves Billboard status, not just notable obscurity cherished by insiders. Ruthlessly and unabashedly pandering to their own strengths, they chose the primary gems from their repertoire: the Debussy and Ravel quartets, appropriately rounded off with Gabriel Fauré’s Quartet, the then 78 year old composer’s last work.

This choice of Fauré is ideal. For one it distinguishes them from their in-house rivals’ – the Belcea Quartet’s – debut album on EMI which throws in Dutilleux (as does the Juilliard Quartet) and it offers the most intense, but never fussy or too extroverted, reading of this somewhat neglected work that Ive heard. The Ébène’s, who have been joyfully reckless and exciting in the recent live performances, show that they are as capable of very taut, detailed, extraordinarily defined and controlled playing, much to Fauré’s benefit. Debussy and Ravel, with overtones of warmth and spunk, respectively, are wilder and also more munificent affairs, unafraid of exploring extremes.

The searing Andantino of the Debussy sets the mood for a luxuriant, opulent performance that becomes hugely interesting – rather than self-indulgent – because it can switch at any point into finely spun rhythmic phrases, forceful climaxes, and very subtle, delicate touches. This approach takes its time, and the Quatuor Ébène allows it that time. What makes it so successful is that there is never the impression of particularly slowness or of the music being pulled around gratuitously.

The Allegro moderato of the Ravel blooms at a true “moderato”, it ebbs and flows with one large, generous pulse. And yet again, the emotional peaks are of grand intensity that benefit not only from the contrast with the surrounding reflecting, lingering, and stretched music, but also from quartet-playing that projects emotion with one voice. Assez vif – Très doux bubbles with colors in the pizzicato part. It’s less a banjo-frenzy (as it can be, with very excited quartets) than it is a tone-poem with distinct aquatic, maritime qualities. Très lent is a very dark affair before the Quatuor Ébène finally unleash (ever detailed) Vif et agité like an electrical storm.

The only quibble I have with this release is the side-effect of an otherwise positive point: The recording is so ambient that the slightest foot-tapping is caught on record so vividly, that listening on speakers whose bass extends low enough to reproduce these subtle-yet-powerful thuds gives the impression that someone is running barefoot around the room upstairs.

This is one of those releases – among my favorites of 2008 – that one need not be ashamed or embarrassed for assigning superlatives to: It’s one of the most exciting recordings of both the Debussy and the Ravel that I’ve ever heard, and one of the most beautiful, too. I’m not giving away my Quartetto Italiano (Philips) recording any time soon, but Virgin’s ambience-rich all-French version might just be the best disc of these works issued in the forty-plus years since.


Anonymous said...

I got this when I saw your mention of it on the best of 2008, and agree about the music--but was it really necessary to populate the cover and liner arts with pseudo-boy band posing? (Or are they really trying to make it onto Billboard?)

jfl said...

Ask Virgin. Aside, they are just showing you how truly French they are. (Although they should have pictured them smoking... that would have been better, still!)