At the Library of Congress, Quatuor Ébène cements its place among elite string quartets


Quatuor Ebène. (Julien Mignot)
February 21

The Quatuor Ébène is a marvelous young French group that has appeared often in Washington. On Thursday, it played to a packed auditorium at the Library of Congress and solidified its standing among the elite of today’s string quartets.

The programming could have been more imaginative; there was nothing from the French repertoire in which the Ébène excels, but rather two standard romantic works written five years apart and an early Haydn quartet. And it would have been better to have ended with the sublime (and longer) Schumann Quartet No. 3 instead of placing the lesser Mendelssohn Quartet No. 6 after intermission.

Possibly the Ébène simply wanted to avoid playing two consecutive works in F minor, but no two pieces could be less alike. The Haydn Op. 20, No. 5 is a work of serene probity in which the minor mode is simply a dimming of the lights in an elegantly appointed room. Mendelssohn’s anguish over the recent death of his beloved sister, however, boils over in every bar; even the virtuosity of the major-key ending seems to shake its fist at the sky.

The Ébène showed its cards immediately in the first phrases of the Haydn; expressive and carefully calibrated bowing (the repeated eighth notes never static) along with dead-center intonation. On the downside, for me, was a willingness to bend the tempo at expressive moments and a tic of the leader, Pierre Colombet, to sometimes delay his vibrato on long notes. Both of these expressive choices were more appropriate to the other pieces on the program but seem to be part of the group’s wiring, to its detriment.

That aside, the musical sophistication was a delight throughout. While the Ébène did not wallow enough in the Clara theme in the introduction to the Schumann, the rest of the performance was as satisfying as one could wish for. The imagination displayed, in the middle two movements in particular, took us, phrase by phrase, through uncharted realms of beauty. The finale is extremely difficult to bring off, with its jerky bowing, but here there was only a sense of momentum and fun.

The Mendelssohn, for all its passion, lacks the transcendence of the Schumann, and even though its emotions are more raw they are less deep. So the Ébène did not have the same depths to plumb, and its performance, for all its surface energy, took less effort. But on the whole, the foursome’s playing is a delight, particularly that of its droll violist Mathieu Herzog. The encore, a cool, sophisticated arrangement of “Misty,” was something of a jolt, but reinforced the idea that this is a group with a mind of its own.

Battey is a freelance writer.

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