Mozart: Quartet in C Major, K. 465, “Dissonance”
Bartok: Quartet No 3 Sz. 85
Debussy: Quartet in G Minor, Op. 10
For all its priceless contributions to the arts, France has never been able to boast a strong musical tradition. Things, however, have been slowly changing thanks to the sizzling talents and adventurous spirits of the four young music students who created the Quatuor Ebène all the way back in 1999. Their worldwide reputation of excellence and versatility – they are equally comfortable at playing classical, jazz or world music – exploded in 2009 with the release of a CD featuring French composers and a widely acclaimed international tour to be added up to an already long string of prestigious awards won along the way. 2009 is also when I was lucky enough to hear them perform an all-French program (Ravel, Fauré and Debussy) right in my then-backyard: the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.
They made such an incredible impression on me that they are now at the top of my list of ensembles-not-to-be-missed. Therefore I was very excited by the opportunity to hear them again this afternoon with my friend Paula at the Town Hall Theater near Times Square, one of their several local stops with Carnegie Hall and The Greene Space. This time, the program featured Mozart, Bartok, Debussy (I guess we couldn’t do without a little bit on nationalistic pride!) and, hopefully, a few unexpected surprises.
The Town Hall Theater turned out to be an old-fashioned, perfectly sized venue for intimate chamber music concerts, and that's where the four black-clad musicians appeared, their youthful faces betraying deep seriousness and intense concentration, before an almost full house. The solemnity of the moment lingered on with the surprisingly slow, somber introduction of Mozart’s “Dissonant Quartet”, but the haunting darkness eventually made way for bright light when the music suddenly changed mood and burst into elating refinement – Hence the title. Dedicated to his friend and mentor Haydn, this work is clear evidence that the student was quickly catching up with the master. The Quatuor Ebène showed an unwaveringly united front and beautifully conveyed the exquisite intricacies of the popular composition.
Bartok’s Quartet No 3 also features a drastic mood change between the bleak first part and the more cheerful second part. It is a fairly short, one-stretch journey that can occasionally sound quite challenging with its festival of unusual sounds, but in due time it becomes full of energy and life-affirming through a healthy injection of folk rhythms. The quartet did not shy away from the stimulating difficulties and expertly highlighted the sharp dissonances without smoothing them over, letting the raw brilliance of the work boldly shine.
Back on what had to be more familiar territory, their version of Debussy’s one and only quartet was a pinnacle of impressionistic elegance and sensitiveness. Although the composition was conventionally written in four movements, its remarkable richness and constant inventiveness decisively set it apart. The sensually lyrical third movement, a personal favorite of mine, cannot help but bring to mind the delicate harmonies of Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune as it stands out in sharp contrast with the more exotic and vivacious sounds of the rest of the piece. Clearly in their element and relishing every second of it, the Quatuor Ebène gave shimmering life to Debussy’s visionary statement.
The four men in black could have been forgiven for taking their leave after such a powerful performance, but they wouldn't do so before revealing the surprise they had in store for us. When the "Victoires de la musique", the most important music awards show in France and, as the cellist laconically noted, “the only time classical music is featured on a prime-time TV program. Better than nothing”, asked them to play some music from the cult movie Pulp Fiction, they readily did it with their own arrangements and usual savoir-faire. That’s how we got to enjoy a unique encore, which concluded a memorable concert by a truly exceptional ensemble.