Mozart: String Quartet in E-flat Major, K. 428
Mendelssohn: String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 13, "Ist es wahr?"
Bartok: String Quartet No. 4
It is always nice to have an extra little pick-me-up on Hump Day, just to make the day even more special. This past Wednesday, however, had a particularly big treat associated to it with the annual visit of the hottest French string quartet ever to New York City. Watching the meteoric trajectory of the virtuosic and intrepid Quatuor Ebène, from my first encounter with them at the Library of Congress in 2009 to... now, when they regularly fill up Zankel Hall with an enthusiastic audience, has been constantly thrilling and rewarding, and I was more than ready for my annual fix.
Wednesday's program, which included Mozart, Mendelssohn and Bartok, sounded appealing, yes, well-balanced, obviously, but, all things considered, rather conventional. However, as a dedicated fan of the seriously fun-loving ensemble I knew better, and even before the concert started I was already looking forward to the end of the official program, when delightful surprises never fail to materialize.
Mozart's "Haydn" Quartets, in which the old master's classicism cleverly rubs notes with the young pupil's petulant instincts, are the kind of works I can listen to anytime anywhere. Brilliantly performed by those seasoned and committed musicians, the third Quartet of the series unfolded with playfulness, precision and warmth, opening the classical portion of the evening with grace and vitality.
After marveling at young Mozart's refined flair at 27, we got to experience even younger Mendelssohn's passionate style at 18. Both being industrious students, the former's six-piece set was paying a glowing tribute to Haydn, the latter's "Ist es wahr?" Quartet was divinely inspired by Beethoven. Add to that the sunny luminosity already found in his famous Octet, whose first version he had come up with two years earlier, and you have an immediately infectious, profusely melodic composition that does not hesitate to pull on your heartstrings in the best Romantic tradition. The incandescent, flawlessly unified playing of the ensemble intensely heightened the richly lyrical quality of the work in Zankel's ever-cool interior.
Things got unquestionably rougher after intermission when Bartok and his intriguingly symmetrical String Quartet No. 4 took center stage. Carefully arranged around the slow third movement, the four other movements formed compelling outer shells, what with aggressively popping pizzicatos, energetic dance rhythms, dazzling technical tricks, deeply expressive colors and so much more. The wide range of sonorities kept the audience constantly on the edge and ended the official program of the evening with a masterful tour de force.
Once the classical stuff out of the way, the time had come to paaartyyyyy. And party we sure did when the four musicians came back and announced that we were all going to Brazil because last year they recorded an album of Brazilian music coinciding with the World Cup. Inspired by Ari Barroso's "Aquarela do Brasil", "Brazile Odyssey" started slowly but quickly gained tremendous, all-out exuberant momentum, with a little help from one of their local buddies, French-born jazz percussionist Mino Cinelu.
Moreover, since we were all brought in to sing along after a very short rehearsal, I can now legitimately claim that I made my singing debut at Carnegie Hall with the Quatuor Ebène... and a few hundred random fellow audience members, all the more psyched by violist Mathieu Herzog's no doubt totally objective assessment of our performance as "not bad". The rousing ovation they received made it clear that our totally objective assessment of their performance was "outstanding". À l'année prochaine !