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Partial Ébène

Many thanks to Robert R. Reilly for this review of the almost-Quatuor Ébène concert.

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Herr Brahms, Piano Quintet, String Quartet No.1,
Quatuor Ébène
I thought I was having a senior moment. Tuesday evening, February 23rd, I arrived at the Terrace Theater in the Kennedy Center prepared to enjoy the Ébène Quartet playing one of my favorite chamber works, the Mendelssohn Quartet in F minor, Op. 80, along with the Beethoven Op. 18, No. 1 and the Fauré String Quartet. My only prospective regret with this program was to have to listen to the Fauré piece, which I had heard the Ébène perform at the Library of Congress in a stunning recital with the Ravel and Debussy Quartets last March. The Fauré suffers from that comparison—can it really be expected to do much better in the company of Beethoven and Mendelssohn? Not to worry, as I saw in the Playbill an entirely different program.

We were, in fact, presented with “members” of the Ébène Quartet, along with pianist Orion Weiss, in a recital of the Schubert String Trio in B-flat Major, D. 581, the Fauré Piano Quartet in G minor, Op. 45, and the Brahms Piano Quartet in C minor, Op. 60. The reason for this reconfiguration was the indisposition of first violinist Pierre Colombet (hernia, as I later learned). Several weeks ago during the Canadian leg of the trip, Mr. Weiss was apparently parachuted in to save the Ébène Quartet tour. And save it he did. Though the hall was not full, no one who was there could have been disappointed with the stunning performances of the substitute program.

The Schubert Trio was the most poised piece of the evening in terms of its Classical origins and demeanor. The three remaining Ébène Quartet members, with second violinist Gabriel La Magadure taking over the duties of the first chair, gave it a delectable turn. It is not great Schubert but it is very lovely and quite enjoyable. The preeminence of the violin almost makes it a trio precursor of the quatuor brilliant style that became so popular somewhat later with composers such as Ludwig Spohr. The playing was beautifully blended (a hallmark of the Ébène) in the Andante and Rondo in particular. The trio played like soul mates.

Entering the Romantic world, the Ébène members and Weiss played the Fauré Quartet with a surging flow of passion and commitment that was entirely gripping and leapt at the ecstatic: A knockout performance. Weiss is a very strong player who performed the non-stop piano part limpidly and dramatically. He also fell in with the spirit of the Ébène players, who know how to capture a sense of interiority with the gentlest pianissimo, which then makes the triple forte playing all the more alarming. Violist Mathieu Herzog and cellist Raphaël Merlin gave lessons in how this is done half-way into the first movement and then Herzog did it again in the opening of the third movement. This movement was sublimely beautiful, especially with Weiss’s delicate pianissimo playing over the gentle pizzicato in the viola and cello. I harp on moments such as these because anyone can play forte and what I treasure are players who not only portray the drama but capture the intimacy in impassioned music like this. This these artists did superbly.

After intermission, yet more impassioned playing with the yet even still more passionate music of Brahms’s Quartet, subtitled “Werther” (after Goethe) for its association with despair and suicide over unrequited love. Without stinting on the big moments, Weiss and the Ébène members avoided the dangers of extroversion in music this intense and dramatic. After the Scherzo: Allegro, the players paused in prolonged silence that had nothing pretentious about it. They were simply re-collecting themselves after the storm. It was a silence full of what had gone before. The performance of the Andante that followed left me wondering how anything can be this impossibly beautiful and touching. The playing was exquisite.

To say the evening was rescued for those expecting a full Ébène is an understatement. (The clarinetist whom I attended the concert with asked me: how can you review anything this good?) However, I implore the full Ébène Quartet to return and play the Mendelssohn Op. 80 -- please.


herman said...

Its too bad there's no way Weiss and the Ebene will ever make a record of the Fauré quartets or quintets, since they will devote all their recording projects to establishing their name as a string quartet.

jfl said...

...and you explain the Brahms Piano Quintet recording with them how? They may well go the PQ4t & PQ5t route... just not with Weiss.