Sunday, February 23, 2014

Quatuor Ebène - Haydn, Schumann & Mendelssohn - 02/21/14

Haydn: String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 20, No. 5
Schumann: String Quartet in A Major, Op. 41, No. 3
Mendelssohn: String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 80

There are a few artists whose performances I do my utmost to attend, and the Quatuor Ebène has been in that category ever since that fateful evening in the Coolidge auditorium of The Library of Congress all the way back in the spring 2009. A lot has happened since then, to them and to me, but it is always with the same joy that I witness their magic fingers expertly work their instruments.
I unfortunately had to miss our quasi annual rendez-vous last year, so this season I made a point not to let anything get in the way between me and their Carnegie Hall concert last Friday, which had the added bonus of my friend Lisa's company. It was the beginning of an unusually long and very musical weekend for me, the city was finally emerging from its cold white winter cover, and no snow had been forecast until... next Tuesday! In short, it was perfect timing to get down to Zankel's cool underground space with classical music's French Fab Four.

Joseph Haydn may be a quintessential symbol of Viennese classicism, but the String Quartet in F Minor, No. 5 that opened the program stemmed from his then ground-breaking decision to make all four instruments equal partners, a musical milestone that paved the way for Mozart and Beethoven while earning him the nickname of "father of the string quartet". Confidently dusting off any possible hints of convention or stuffiness, the musicians took the innovative composition up one more notch and delivered a vibrantly dynamic, beautifully detailed rendition of it.
A few decades later, Robert Schumann would try his hand at the string quartet form and produce his merrily gracious String Quartet in A Major, No. 3. The pace varied from slow to spirited, but the overall structure never lost its fundamental integrity, and it all ended with the expected combination of high energy and an infectious melody. It may not be of the same caliber as the two pieces book-ending it, but the Ebène musicians made sure that its engaging qualities shone through.
After intermission the mood grew considerable darker with Mendelssohn's String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 80. Written right after the death of his beloved sister Fanny and finished just a few weeks before his own death, this last major composition of his is often considered his late masterpiece. Never one to make a spectacle of himself regardless of the circumstances, Mendelssohn put together an outwardly sober but emotionally far-reaching work, which powerfully expresses deep sadness, nagging pain, constant restlessness, restrained melancholy and sweet tenderness. Using their flawless technical expertise to subtly convey the underlying intensity of this harrowing journey, the Quatuor Ebène resolutely took us right into the grieving brother's tortured mind.

To perk things up a bit before we parted ways, the quartet treated the audience to a pleasant little Broadway tune whose title escaped most of us, but efficiently lifted our spirits. And then all was well again.

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