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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Concert Review: Miles To Go Before They Sleep

The Ebène Quartet plays Zankel Hall.
by Paul Pelkonen

The Ebène Quartet: Pierre Colombet, Gabriel Le Magadure,
Raphäel Merlin, Mathieu Herzog. Photo © 2011 21C Management.
In the staid world of chamber music, the Ebène Quartet are fast-rising stars. These four energetic young French musicians proved that status on Sunday evening with a concert at Zankel Hall, the final stop on their North American tour. The concert was evenly split between standard repertory of Mozart and Beethoven, and a second set that ranged from modal jazz to modern songwriting. 

This Quartet: violinists Pierre Colombet and Gabriel Le Magadure, violist Mathieu Herzog and cellist Raphäel Merlin, has been making waves lately with acclaimed performances of accepted chamber repertory to their fearless assaults on beloved jazz tunes. They have been playing for twelve years, and the tight interaction of these four young musicians makes their concerts fascinating to watch, as the sounds and energy travel telepathically between the players. 

The concert opened with the group's sweet, lyrical side with the D minor quartet written by Mozart and dedicated to Haydn. This allowed the players to sally forth in the galant style, producing rich, warm tone from their vintage instruments. Violins, viola and cello engaged in a sophisticated conversation, inviting the audience to witness the debate as they moved lightly through the four movements.

Beethoven's Quartet No. 14 (Op. 131) is one of the composer's most unconventional late creations. With seven short movements and a climactic central theme and variations, the "1-3-1" broke every compositional rule and laid the groundwork for the composer's last three musical statements. With a slow, sad fugue at the beginning and a bold sonata form at its end, it reversed the normal order of movements and added lilting baroque dances that looked back to Bach. 

The Ebène players brought passion and energy to this unconventional structure, unfolding the work like a complex murder mystery with the composer as the perpetrator.. They met the challenges of phrasing and expression with a head-on attack. The wildest and most chaotic moment: the "snap pizzicato" that predicted the percussive writing of Bartók kept its power to surprise unprepared members of the audience.

This was a passionate performance: expressive and deeply involved in the music. The fugue had an appropriate air of mystery. The dance and scherzo were filled with sad nostalgia. This was not the cosmic exploration that some ensembles bring to this music, but a deep, psychologically complex interpretation that culminated in the aggression of the final movement. They worked through the complex development and recapitulation to the coda, a final re-statement of the strange fugue that opens the piece.

The second half of the evening was devoted to a mix of jazz standards, popular songs and the occasional work by a contemporary composer. It opened with a lucid rendition of Wayne Shorter's jazz classic "Footprints", originally written for Miles Davis. Two violins and the viola took the horn and piano lines against Raphäel Merlin's steady, plucked bass.

The set also featured "Unrequited," a song by contemporary composer/pianist Brad Mehldau that breathed with longing, and a bold, raucous take on the much-covered "Come Together" from The Beatles' Abbey Road. This featured diverse instrumental techniques, from bowed verses to plucked phrases, with a grinding groove of the song's famous riff. 

The Quartet used the same arrangement for "So What" and "All Blues", selections re-arranged from the Miles Davis classic Kind of Blues. Here, the lines of Miles, John Coltrane and Bill Evans were flawlessly rendered, with the odd harmonic foray and re-orchestration representing the alto sax of Cannonball Adderly. 

The Quartet responded to the enthusiastic audience with one encore: an unconventional (and veyr French) take on "Someday my Prince Will Come," written by Frank Churchill for Disney's first feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The four members sang the opening and closing verses a capella, returning to their instruments for the central section. The sung final bars ended this concert on a joyous, upbeat note. 

Read the Superconductor interview with the Ebène String Quartet.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.