Quatuor Ebene

Quatuor Ébène

Sun, April 28, 3:00pm

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Overview

The charismatic Quatuor Ébène is one of the most exciting quartets playing today. With their fresh approach to tradition and open engagement with new forms, this French ensemble has been successful in reaching a wide audience of listeners. Their characteristic style engages a traditional repertoire with a variety of other genres, earning enthusiastic acclaim from audiences and critics alike.

“In the string quartet world, to play both Mozart and Bartók well is considered quite a demonstration of versatility. When Quatuor Ébène plays Mozart and Bartók well, it’s just getting started.” — Boston Classical Review
Artists

Pierre Colombet, violin
Gabriel Le Magadure, violin
Marie Chilemme, viola
Raphaël Merlin, cello

Program

Beethoven String Quartet No. 1 in F Major, Op. 18, No. 1
Fauré  String Quartet in E Minor, Op. 121
— Intermission —
Beethoven  String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131

Caramoor dedicates this concert to the memory of Helen-Mae Knafel Askin.


Quatuor Ebene

Quatuor Ébène

Pierre Colombet, violin
Gabriel Le Magadure, violin
Marie Chilemme, viola
Raphaël Merlin, cello

Artist Website

“A string quartet that can easily morph into a jazz band,” wrote The New York Times after a 2009 performance by Quatuor Ébène. The ensemble opened with Debussy and Haydn and then improvised on a film music theme — with exactly the same enthusiasm and passion.

What began in 1999 as a distraction in the university’s practice rooms for the four young French musicians has become a trademark of the Quatuor Ébène, and has generated lasting reverberations in the music scene. The four breathe new life into chamber music through their consistently direct, open-minded perspective on the works. Regardless of the genre, they approach the music with humility and respect. They change styles with gusto, and yet remain themselves: with all the passion that they experience for each piece, and which they bring to the stage and to their audiences directly and authentically.

There is no single word that describes their style: they’ve created their own. Their traditional repertoire does not suffer from their engagement with other genres; rather, their free association with diverse styles brings a productive excitement to their music. From the beginning, the complexity of their oeuvre has been greeted enthusiastically by audiences and critics.

The four breathe new life into chamber music through their consistently direct, open-minded perspective on the works. Regardless of the genre, they approach the music with humility and respect.

After studies with the Quatuor Ysaÿe in Paris and with Gábor Takács, Eberhard Feltz, and György Kurtág, the quartet had an unprecedented victory at the ARD Music Competition 2004. This marked the beginning of their rise, which has culminated in numerous prizes and awards.

The Quatuor Ébène’s concerts are marked by a special élan. With their charismatic playing, their fresh approach to tradition and their open engagement with new forms, the musicians have been successful in reaching a wide audience of young listeners; they communicate their knowledge in regular master classes at the Conservatoire Paris.

The quartet was one of the award winners of the Borletti-Buitoni Trust in 2007 and received support from the BBT between 2007 and 2017. In 2005, the ensemble won the Belmont Prize of the Forberg-Schneider Foundation. Since then, the Foundation has worked closely with the musicians, who are performing on instruments chosen with and loaned by Gabriele Forberg-Schneider since 2009.

The Quatuor Ébène’s CDs, featuring recordings of music by Haydn, Bartók, Debussy, Fauré, Mozart, and the Mendelssohn siblings have won numerous awards, including the Gramophone Award, the ECHO Klassik, the BBC Music Magazine Award and the Midern Classic Award. Their 2010 album Fiction with jazz arrangements, has only solidified their unique position in the chamber music scene, as well as their 2014 crossover CD Brazil, a collaboration with Stacey Kent, and their recent recording with Michel Portal, Eternal Stories. In fall 2014, Erato released A 90th Birthday Celebration, a live recording (on CD and DVD) of Menahem Pressler’s birthday celebration concert with the Quatour Ébène in Paris. In 2015/2016 the musicians focussed on the genre of the Lied. They collaborated with Philippe Jaroussky for the CD Green (Mélodies françaises) which won the BBC Music Magazine Award 2016 and published a Schubert CD. It includes Lieder, recorded with Mathias Goerne (arranged for string quartet, baritone and bass by Raphël Merlin) as well as the string quintet, recorded with Gautier Capuçon.

The fundamental classical repertoire for string quartet will remain a cornerstone: this season, the Quatuor Ébène will focus on Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartets. The quartet will indeed present the complete Beethoven cycle in 2020 for their 20th anniversary as well as for 250th jubilee of the composer.

From April 2019 through January 2020 the Quatuor Ébène will go on a world tour with the theme “Beethoven Live Around the World” with concerts in North America, South America, Africa, India, Australia & New Zealand, Asia, and Europe. The Quartet will guest in concert halls including the Perelman Theater Philhadelphia, Sala São Paulo, Melbourne Recital Centre, and the Konzerthaus Vienna.

About the Music.

Program at a Glance

In his six early Opus 18 quartets, Beethoven staked a claim to the title of Haydn’s and Mozart’s successor in the rarefied realm of the string quartet. The first of the set, the F Major Quartet, signaled in no uncertain terms that his apprenticeship with Haydn was over: Beethoven’s distinctive voice is as clear in the intricate banter of the fast movements as in the tragic intensity of the Adagio. What Goethe called the composer’s “utterly untamed personality” is still more apparent in Op. 131, which Beethoven considered the greatest of his sixteen quartets. Although much has been written about its unconventional seven-part structure and abstruse tonal relationships, the work’s robust lyricism and emotional fervor have never failed to draw listeners into its unforgettable sound world.

The late Romantic composer Gabriel Fauré, like many of his contemporaries in France and elsewhere, stood in awe of Beethoven’s towering achievement and put off writing a string quartet until the very end of his life. Even then he felt far from certain that he had successfully risen to the challenge. “I did what I could,” he modestly told his son, “now … let God judge!” Not until seven months after Fauré’s death was the masterful and richly elegiac E Minor quartet first performed at the Paris Conservatoire, the institution that he had long led.

 


The Program

 

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
1770 – 1827

String Quartet No. 1 in F Major, Op. 18, No. 1 (1798 – 1800)

About the Composer

Beethoven cut his musical teeth in his native Bonn, a relatively small provincial capital whose cultural life offered limited scope for a prodigiously gifted and ambitious young musician. Arriving in Vienna in 1792, the 21-year-old tyro brashly asserted his credentials as an up-and-coming pianist and composer impatient to take his place in the public eye beside his beloved teacher, Joseph Haydn. In choosing three readily accessible piano trios as his first published works, he probably meant to ingratiate himself with his well-heeled patrons in the cosmopolitan imperial capital. A diligent student, Beethoven copied out a number of Haydn’s and Mozart’s string quartets, biding his time until he felt prepared to enter the field. He began sketching the Opus 18 set in 1798 and worked out his ideas in leisurely fashion over the next two years. Even after the manuscript was complete he continued to fine tune the scores, telling his friend Karl Amenda that “only now do I know how to write quartets properly.”

 

About the Work

Compared to Haydn’s 68 string quartets and Mozart’s 27, Beethoven’s total output of 16 was modest. His dependence on the financial support of various aristocratic acquaintances meant that his production of quartets was sporadic and often interrupted by more pressing or lucrative projects. Both the six Opus 18 quartets and the “Harp” Quartet, Op. 74, were dedicated to Prince Joseph Lobkowitz, Vienna’s foremost patron of the arts in the early 19th century. (Haydn was another recipient of the prince’s largess; Lobkowitz commissioned his Opus 77 quartets and sponsored the oratorios The Creation and The Seasons.) What the nobleman made of Beethoven’s youthful offering is not recorded, but one contemporary reviewer described the Opus 18 quartets as “very difficult to perform and not at all popular,” a judgment to which history has given the lie.

 

A Deeper Listen

The crisp, unison opening of the Allegro con brio sets forth the tautly wound rhythmic motive that generates much of the movement’s dynamic energy. Yet for all its exuberance, Beethoven’s music has a genial, conversational tone, with the four instruments good-naturedly bandying snatches of thematic material among themselves. The contrast with the slow movement, a darkly expansive Adagio in D Minor, could hardly be starker. The first violin’s poignant melody wafts above a flowing triplet accompaniment, conveying a mood of intense, almost tragic anguish. (Beethoven told Amenda that he had the tomb scene in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in mind as he wrote the music.) The gloom is swiftly dispelled by a perky but graceful Scherzo, with a whimsical, slightly lumbering Trio section. The final Allegro tears off at a breakneck pace, as Beethoven artfully disguises the four-square march meter with skittering triplets and stinging syncopations.

 

GABRIEL FAURÉ
1845 – 1924

String Quartet in E Minor, Op. 121 (1923 – 1924)

About the Composer

Fauré’s path to immortality was far from smooth. Although he earned the respect of his teacher, Camille Saint-Saëns, most of France’s musical establishment held him at arm’s length. Ambroise Thomas, the powerful director of the Paris Conservatoire, regarded Fauré as a dangerous revolutionary, and even Franz Liszt, usually the most open-minded of judges, rejected his Ballade for piano and orchestra as excessively difficult.

Not until 1896, when he was 51 years old, did the Conservatoire bring him on board as Professor of Composition and, nine years later, Director. Fauré forged a uniquely personal voice, free of the stultifying traditionalism and self-aggrandizing pomposity of the French academic style. His music, as epitomized by works like his famous Requiem and the Pavane for orchestra, is distinguished by its lucidity and refinement, its utter lack of bombast and pretension, and its mild-mannered unconventionality in matters of form, harmony, rhythm, and thematic development.

 

About the Work

Fauré began sketching his lone string quartet in the summer of 1923, shortly after putting the finishing touches on his melodious Piano Trio. Wary of inviting comparisons to Beethoven, or perhaps doubtful that he would have the stamina to see the project through, he kept the quartet under wraps until the first two movements were almost complete. (Thanks to Beethoven, the string quartet had an almost talismanic significance for composers like Fauré, Debussy, Franck, and Ravel, each of whom contributed only a single work to the genre.)

Fauré fussed and fretted over the score, complaining that “this devil of a quartet” was giving him no end of trouble. By the time he got around to composing the finale a year later, his health was failing precipitately. Not long before his death on November 4, 1924, he issued instructions that the quartet was not to be “published and played” until it had been “tried out before the small group of friends who always hear my works first.” That select circle included the critic Camille Bellaigue, to whom Op. 121 is dedicated. The work was belatedly premiered in the concert hall of the Paris Conservatoire on June 12, 1925, by an ensemble led by the great violinist Jacques Thibaud.

 

A Deeper Listen

To describe Fauré’s bittersweet swan song as a requiem for an era would be overstating the case. Yet much of the E Minor Quartet has an unmistakably elegiac, backward-looking feel; indeed, the Allegro moderato incorporates material from an unfinished violin concerto that Fauré had composed more than four decades earlier. The viola’s languidly rising opening phrase is answered by a descending theme of a more urgent character played by the first violin. This ebb and flow continues as, one after another, the musical lines arch, strain, and fall back in exhaustion. Although the quartet’s tonality is often murky, each of the three movements traces a clear trajectory from minor to major.

The central Andante sets a flowing cantilena melody against throbbing eighth notes, while the main theme of the concluding Allegro — a skittish tune in stepwise motion — is punctuated by a leaping pizzicato figure. Fauré characterized the finale as “a sort of dance of happy souls” that filled him with “a discreet and veiled joy.”

 

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN

String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131 (1826)

About the Composer

As Fauré’s diffident hesitancy demonstrates, Beethoven’s 16 quartets both inspired and intimidated later composers. If the six early Opus 18 quartets advertise his debt to Haydn and the three Opus 59 quartets (1806) of his so-called middle period are steeped in the “heroic” idiom of the Third Symphony (“Eroica”) and the “Appassionata” Piano Sonata, the seven quartets that Beethoven wrote in the last eighteen years of his life have a quirky, somewhat otherworldly quality, often juxtaposing passages of great tenderness and lucidity with lacerating eruptions of raw emotion. Most challenging of all were the five late quartets (Opp. 127, 130, 131, 132, and 135), to which Beethoven devoted himself almost exclusively between the summer of 1824 and the autumn of 1826. These knotty, inward-looking masterpieces stretch the formal and expressive language of the classical string quartet almost to the breaking point.

 

About the Work

Beethoven brought his C-sharp Minor quartet to fruition in the first six months of 1826, though he seems to have started work on it somewhat earlier. It followed hard on the heels of the Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 130, whose weighty finale the composer later split off and published separately as the Grosse Fuge, or Great Fugue. One might almost say that Op. 131, with its majestic fugal introduction, begins where its predecessor left off. Beethoven is said to have regarded the Quartet in C-sharp Minor as his supreme achievement in the genre; yet in delivering the manuscript to his publisher, he joked that he had cobbled it together “from pilferings from one thing and another.” The score is dedicated to Baron Joseph von Stutterheim, the commander of the military regiment in which Beethoven’s suicidal nephew Karl had recently found refuge.

 

A Deeper Listen

The four-note motto that we hear at the beginning, migrating downward from one voice to another, bears a distinct family resemblance to the subject of the Grosse Fuge (a sequence of half-steps separated by wide leaps). This long-breathed fugue unfolds in one extended paragraph, its aching intensity accentuated by the unusual choice of key. (Beethoven had used C-sharp Minor only once before, in the “Moonlight” Piano Sonata.) After briefly coming to rest on a unison tonic, the players shift up a half-step, to D Major, for the perky Allegro molto vivace in 6/8 time.

Two emphatic chords herald the Allegro moderato, which turns out to be little more than a prelude to the quartet’s centerpiece, marked Andante ma non troppo e molto cantabile (Not too slow, and very songlike).

Beethoven puts his genial A major tune, with its characteristic off-beat pulse, through a series of dazzlingly ingenious variations. At times, indeed, the musical argument is so tightly packed that the theme disappears altogether, only to resurface at the end in the inner voices, providing a foundation for the first violin’s dancing trills. After a quiet cadence — the only full stop in the entire quartet — the music races off in a skittering Presto, brimful of humor and surprises. Another short bridge, this time a languorous Adagio in G-sharp minor, brings us back to the home key. A terse, slashing up-and-down motif sets the pace for the concluding Allegro, which is characterized by sharp contrasts of mood and tonal register.

— Harry Haskell