Saturday, March 14, 2009

Quatuor Ebène - Ravel, Fauré & Debussy - 03/13/09

Ravel: String Quartet in F Major
Fauré: String Quartet in E Minor, Op. 121
Debussy: Quartet in G Minor, Op. 10

After the exotic musical wanderings of the Silk Road Ensemble two nights ago, it was quite a shock to my system to be back at the Library of Congress yesterday evening for not only some Western chamber music, but an all-French program performed by an all-French quartet too! The three composers to be heard were all turn-of-last-century artists and had quite a few personal and professional connections among them: they each wrote only one string quartet, Fauré was Ravel's teacher at the Paris Conservatoire and later appointed Debussy to the governing body of that same institution, Ravel and Debussy had a friendly, then estranged relationship... Young, rightfully fast-rising and already all over the place, the Quatuor Ébène definitely looks like the ultimate musical ambassadors for a country not especially renowned for its strong musical tradition. However, when the French muse strikes, the results can be quite spectacular, as we were about to find out.

Although well-meaning critics advised Ravel to revise his quartet, his then buddy Debussy strongly urged him "in the name of the gods of music" not to touch a single note and, thankfully for us, Ravel listened to the voice of friendship. Although obviously influenced by Debussy's earlier output, Ravel's quartet more than stands on its own. Yesterday, rhythmic pizzicatos were popping up all over the scherzo and the third movement was so ethereally delicate that one was afraid to breath, before things decisively perked up for a very passionate grand finale.
After the student's youthful vigor, the old master sounded downright classical with a subtle touch and Franck-like meditative restraint. Proving their technical and emotional maturity, the musicians gave a serene, deeply-felt reading of Fauré's last work, and did a wonderful job at emphasizing its quiet, intrinsic beauty.
Another gem of French chamber music, Debussy's quartet is a magically impressionistic work that no true-blue French native can hear without feeling the strong urge to sip a leisurely cup of afternoon tea while nibbling at a sweet, golden madeleine, remembering of things past. While his composition techniques were famously ground-breaking at the time, one does not need any expertise in musical analysis to fully enjoy the gorgeous unity of the four intricately refined movements. The andantino by itself is a little gift that keeps giving regardless of the mood you're in, and just stays with you long after the music has stopped.

But the party was not over yet, and the quartet decided to reward the resounding ovation from the packed auditorium with quite an unexpected treat: They started by singing a cappella "Un jour mon prince viendra" ("Someday my prince will come") from... Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (!?) before grabbing their respective instruments and performing a free-wheeling, right-on jazzy spin-off of it. Classical, yes, but with a twist. Vive la France!

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