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Quatuor Ébène @ LoC

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Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn, String Quartets, Quatuor Ébène
(Erato, 2013)
We have been following the Quatuor Ébène for about a decade -- as far back as 2006 (at the Corcoran), in 2008 in Gauting, Germany and the Salzburg Festival, and last at the Mozart Woche in 2012 -- as well as their recordings. In the wake of their new recording, of quartets by Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn, their latest U.S. tour passed through the Library of Congress (where I last heard them in 2009) on Thursday night, with a program that climaxed with one of the Mendelssohn quartets. This time around, unlike in 2010, all four members of the group were in good health, and their trademark sound -- cool, contained, beautifully pointed -- was back in form. Coolidge Auditorium is an ideal space to hear them, an acoustic where one does not have to strain to hear the quietest sounds the group made.

Early Haydn (op. 20/5, Hob. III:35, from 1772) was essentially a one-man show for first violinist Pierre Colombet, who seemed completely recovered from his health troubles in 2010. The approach was not strict or classical: with the one player largely in control, he was able to introduce many charming hesitations and stretches of the tempo. The first movement, moderately paced in the best sense, was followed by an equally gentle Menuet and a third movement played like a tender operatic love aria, with our first violinist as the sighing diva, complete with impressive ornaments and cadenza-like solos, something like the central showpiece of an extended scena. The concluding Fuga had an intellectual sheen, the playing all soft enough that each etched individual line could be clearly perceived.

Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, At the Library of Congress, Quatuor Ébène cements its place among elite string quartets (Washington Post, February 22)

David Patrick Stearns, Quatuor Ebene delivers intelligent, restrained program (Philadelphia Inquirer, February 21)
The remaining two quartets featured different aspects of the Romantic era, beginning with a dramatically bipolar Schumann no. 3 (A major, op. 41/3), a succession of often bizarre characters, outbursts, and lyrical outpourings. The musicians took each to its outermost edge, without making the piece unravel. The first movement's slow passages were stretched and lilting, while the agitated second movement, extremely fast, trembled but with elastic rubato, followed by a Philistine-crushing Tempo risoluto. The climax was the gorgeous homophony of the slow movement, with its enigmatic middle section animated by little motifs in call-and-response format. The fourth movement capped the piece with an exciting, buzzing finale, punctuated by a "Quasi Trio" section of more folk-like drones and accelerandi.

The Mendelssohn at the end of the concert (no. 6, F minor, op. posth. 80) made sense for its visceral excitement, with many thrilling fast movements to cap the evening, but it was not as satisfying musically. The work's demands led the players to push their sound a little too far at times, but it made for a thrilling conclusion. Once again, the first violinist carried the piece on his shoulders, with a generally solid and bravura sound, with the entire quartet keeping the intonation almost perfectly true. The slow movement was intense but largely understated, with a flexible rubato that never turned soupy. The finale was quite fast but not an all-out attack at first, allowing a sweeter beginning that became quite storm-tossed. The evening was completed by the group's signature jazz encore, this time not sung, but a suave string quartet arrangement of the standard Misty by Erroll Garner.

The next concert at the Library of Congress is a harpsichord recital by Mitzi Meyerson this afternoon (February 22, 2 pm).

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