Brahms: String Quartet No. 1 in C minor, Op. 51
Dutilleux: Ainsi la nuit
String Quartet No. 7, Op. 59 (Razumovsky No. 1)
Although subway trains and neighborhood restaurants are often blissfully less crowded in summer, New York City invariably seems to be stuck in a hot and humid lull that even the Mostly Mozart Festival cannot always manage to shake.
Therefore, this year I decided to kill two birds with one stone: by finally attending the prestigious Verbier Festival, I would be scratching one more item off my bucket list while indulging in a majestic landscape, fresh air and chocolate. That would of course still mean a few inconveniences, such as putting up with mass tourism and exorbitant prices, but living for almost a decade in New York City had prepared me for those.
That’s how in late July and early August, after a couple of days in Geneva, I found myself on a train, and then another train, and then a cable car to reach the posh mountain resort of Verbier and temporarily settle in a spacious one-bedroom apartment with an amazing view (and an equally amazing bathtub).
As if to make the deal even sweeter, my first concert would be by the Quatuor Ébène, whom I hadn’t heard in a couple of years, and not since the original violist Mathieu Herzog left the ensemble. I had missed his first replacement, but I was looking forward to checking out how Marie Chilemme, the current recruit in that position, was faring.
So never mind the tumble I took in Geneva’s Old Town two days earlier that had left me with a sprained ankle and a sore knee, on Wednesday evening I slowly waddled my way down the steep rue de Médran and up the equally challenging route des Creux to the resolutely modern and immaculately white Church in Verbier-Station. And before long our delighted ears filled up with exhilarating live music int the bare, intimate space.
The program started with my beloved Johannes Brahms and his String Quartet No. 1 in C minor, Op. 51, the first of the three string quartets the ultimate perfectionist wrote and considered good enough for public consumption. Richly lyrical and organically flowing, it is an unsurprisingly masterful effort on the part of the composer, and on Wednesday night it received the glowing performance it deserved, Marie Chilemme fitting in seamlessly in the tight-as-ever ensemble.
After Brahms’ lush Romanticism, we boldly moved on to a contemporary French piece that has been fascinating me ever since I first heard it years ago. Comprised of seven linked movements for a total duration of less than twenty minutes, Henri Dutilleux’s one and only string quartet Ainsi la nuit quickly and quietly enveloped the mesmerized audience in its mysterious nocturnal atmosphere with exquisite dissonances, sudden contrasts, irreverent sparks and impressionistic touches.
After intermission, we were in for the most substantial work of the program in Beethoven’s glorious Razumovsky No. 1, one of the composer’s most exciting chamber works, for which the Quatuor Ébène unquestionably delivered their most exciting performance of the evening, apparently thrilled to no end at having such a deliciously meaty piece to sink their teeth in. As for the rest of us, it was essentially impossible not to be spontaneously carried away by the daunting complexity of the score and the sheer force of the playing. And so we were.