Quatuor Ebène launches U.S. tour with impassioned Chicago debut

March 05, 2018
By Tim Sawyier
Quatuor Ebene performed Friday night at Mandel Hall.

Quatuor Ebène performed Friday night at Mandel Hall. Photo: Julien Mignot

Quatuor Ebène made its Chicago debut Friday night at Mandel Hall on the first stop of an American tour. The University of Chicago Presents event was also the first in this country of the Paris-based ensemble’s latest roster: new violist Marie Chilemme replaced Adrien Boisseau to join violinists Pierre Colombet and Gabriel Le Magadure (first and second, respectively), and cellist Raphaël Merlin.

The interpretative stance of the French quartet is generally extroverted, and their performance was at its best when the repertoire called for outward panache. In their opener of Haydn’s String Quartet in D Minor (“Fifths”), Op. 76, no. 2 , the over-the-top approach proved a mismatch for the music.

The faster movements were overly aggressive, with crunching accents and strong dynamics that were more forcefully loud than robust. Colombet beguilingly spun the Andante’s elevated melody, but the movement’s forte outbursts were so jarring as to disrupt its reflective mood completely. 

Highly inflected phrasing made the Finale feel almost spastic, and it was a relief when the group ripped their bows across their strings and flung them in the air to deliver a percussive final chord. Too bad that the overtly dramatic reading actually robbed the music of its real drama.

The Ebène then offered the final work of their countryman Gabriel Fauré—his String Quartet in E Minor, Op. 121—and here their intensity yielded great dividends. Marcel Proust wrote to Fauré that he was “intoxicated” by the composer’s music, and the Ebène’s idiomatic reading made clear how this could have been the case.

They fluently followed the ebb and flow of the opening Allegro moderato, and leaned in to its redolent, ambiguous harmonies. The four players struck a compelling balance between the languor and insistence of the central Andante, and their gestural phrasing lent the closing Allegro a skittish Gallic charm.

Beethoven’s String Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 74 (“Harp”) followed after intermission, and this work received the most nuanced performance of the night. The opening Poco adagio—Allegro had a muscular physicality to it, and Colombet delivered vigorous pyrotechnics in the movement’s closing section. The Ebène’s vast dynamic range was on display in the Adagio ma non troppo, where soft, supple textures enhanced the movement’s semplice delicacy. 

The four players gave the Presto a blistering treatment, from which they proceeded almost directly into the closing movement’s set of variations. These were evocatively characterized, and though one knew it was coming, the muted ending still came off as a surprise. While their flashy reading is certainly at the forward edge of interpretive suitability for middle Beethoven, it was solidly in the ballpark, as opposed to the Classical quartet that had opened the evening.

On a third curtain call cellist Merlin explained two traditions of the Quatuor Ebène: they never follow a Beethoven quartet with an encore, and their encores are never classical. He stated though that they make exceptions to the first of these in the case of less heady Beethoven quartets—of which the “Harp” is one—and so offered an up-tempo Miles Davis selection by way of a nightcap.

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