Film and Recital: The Quatuor Ébène in Vienna

Vienna, Musikverein, October 10, 2018—Orchestras have gotten better and better over the last 100 years (the time frame we can reasonably judge). Choirs have gotten audibly better every decade, too. But perhaps nowhere has the improvement—technically and expressively—been more astounding than in the field of string quartets. In the past, the outstanding ensembles stood out for the rare instances they were. Today, there is an embarrassment of riches of great quartets. And still among this quantitative increase in quality, the Quatuor Ébène stands out as one of the supreme string quartets of our time, raising already high standards to still greater heights above and beyond mere technical perfection—especially in terms of subtlety and elegance. To hear this quartet in recital is therefore always burdened by high expectations and fueled by excitement.

When they stopped by in Vienna recently, their recital at the Musikverein’s ornate Brahms Hall coincided with the first showing in Vienna of the documentary made about the ensemble, simply titled “4”. Director Daniel Kutschinski’s work shed light on some of the qualities that make the Quatuor Ébène what it is: A brutally honest, musically high-minded, self-critical musical body always in search of perfection. On first viewing, the unflinching, zoom-effect of “4”—exposing blemishes, insecurities, and intense conflict—made me cringe: “I love the quartet, but will others think less of it for seeing so much behind the scenes?”

On second viewing, and gathering responses from other, first-time watchers, this changed to confident admiration for the quartet, to be absolutely unfazed by these psychological and emotional close-ups. Only a foursome very much at ease with itself (and healthily informed by their ability) could let such a film be made without trying to slam hard on the editing brakes. The viewers get to squirm in their seats as the players take bites out of each other; get to laugh as they throw offhanded snarky remarks about; get to sigh as these four musicians cherish the humanity of their divergent but deep, music-fueled friendship. It’s as much a film about relationships as it is one about music.

“4” also underlines a new development with the quartet, namely that the founding and formative setup changed when violist Mathieu Herzog set out to pursue other interests, mainly conducting. (His recording of the last three Mozart symphonies on Naïve was released last month.) Herzog was the emotional and musical center of gravity of the quartet; a friendly foil to first violinist Pierre Colombet; a source of healthy friction and garrulous warmth. At least that’s how they have come across.

Having heard the group in its latest setup only once, now with a charming Marie Chilemme as the new violist, hardly suffices to draw sweeping conclusions. Still, it was hard not to ascribe differences in the quartet’s playing on the change in personality among the four instruments.

The Incredible Lightness of Beethoven

Headed toward spending a whole year (2020, naturally) on the road just with Beethoven after recording a complete cycle for Warner/Erato, it was only natural that Ludwig Van should dominate this program, too. Opus 18/5 had a beguiling dry and thin, on-point quality to it, akin to the airy, transparent ways that had always been typical of the Ébènes. Wherever it appeared, it reminded of the móbilés of Alexander Calder. The second movement seesawed starkly between innocence and darkness without overplaying the accents. The Ländler rhythms of this Menuetto were jamming with rustic-buoyant gusto: Highbrow Oom-pah fun.

The Variations of the Andante cantabile—more an Andante deconstructible here—were free of legato, enjoyed delicious light accentuations, and came, again, in stark contrast to the beer-hall fun that was had in the Allegretto, where cellist Raphaël Merlin set off in Octoberfest-timely ways, only for the four lonely voices of the quartet’s very beginning to return to spectacularly subtle effect.

Brahms’ string quartets are perhaps more difficult nuts to crack—so much that it’s almost a cliché to mention it. Neither easy to play nor to hear, they seem inherently burdened by trying too much, too hard; overwrought, force-willed masterpieces that Brahms long struggled with. Fortunately the transparency of the Quatuor Ébène lends itself to un-knotting these works, and so they went about their work. With plenty of nervous energy, occasionally distended-sounding, the players made sound easy what often sounds labored. But the density was still there, making the quote of Brahms on why he waited so long to publish a string quartet—because “it is so hard to rid yourself of the superfluous notes”—sound almost ironic.

In the Ébène’s eight hands, Beethoven’s last string quartet, Op.135, had many qualities of the earlier one, if less obviously so. The racy tempo of the Vivace went well with the “ruffian” interludes that pop up in this second movement. The slow movement sounds almost like a leave-taking of Beethoven’s: like a slow, suspended, breathed pool of depth. In all of that, the ensemble’s musical center struck me as having shifted from an indefinable middle toward the (stage) right, toward the first violin. Taking more risks, maybe taking the lead, it was the first time that I notably thought of the quartet having a “primarius”, not just a nominal first violin among, more or less, equals. At the same time, the liberty of second violinist Gabriel Le Magadure seems to have increased, too, no longer in total delicate lockstep with the first violin. The viola emitted a coy energy without being an absorbing force. The delightful pizzicatos in the syncopated finale reminded, where reminding was hardly necessary, that this French quartet is still formidable and its Beethoven cycle something to look forward to.