Saturday, 31 October 2009

Quatuor Ebène - Brahms, Bartók, and Schubert, Wigmore Hall, 30 October 2009

Wigmore Hall

Brahms – String Quartet in C minor, op.51 no.1
Bartók – String Quartet no.3
Schubert - String Quartet in D minor, D 810, ‘Death and the Maiden’

Pierre Colombet, Gabriel Le Magadure (violins)
Mathieu Herzog (viola)
Raphaël Merlin (violoncello)

Fresh from receiving a Gramophone award for their disc of works by Fauré, Debussy, and Ravel, the players of the Quatuor Ebene displayed an equal level of excellence in this programme of string quartets by Brahms, Bartók, and Schubert. My sole reservation concerned the first Brahms quartet: not in terms of the performance but the work itself. Dyed-in-the-wool Brahmsian that I be, I still find this an uningratiating piece. Nevertheless, in the struggle to make quartet writing out of Brahms’s difficult music, the Ebène came as close as I can recall hearing. The febrile opening proved Janus-faced, as Brahms is wont to do; already there were hints of Schoenberg, Verklärte Nacht and beyond, but there was also Beethovenian motivic insistency. Every note was made to count and to sound utterly necessary, the movement’s concision evoking a celebrated predecessor, probably the most celebrated predecessor, in the tonality of C minor: the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The Romanze is easier to warm to, at least for me. Despite its deceptive (relative) simplicity, it is just as tightly constructed, the Ebène’s performance producing considerable tension. There were, however, moments of (relative) relaxation, the beauty of Raphaël Merlin’s cello line almost looking forward to the slow movement of the second piano concerto. The players imparted an ideal sense of quiet inexorability to the third movement. Here the inner parts especially teemed with motivic invention, not least in their strangely unerotic quality of their chromaticism: chaste, though Nietzsche might maliciously have referred again to the ‘melancholy of impotence’. The fury of the musicians’ initial attack upon the finale was sustained throughout in a way that recalled Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge. Thematic links with previous movements were both clear and necessary. As Schoenberg recognised, this is a standard-bearing work of near-total thematicism. Brahms’s system cannot but inspire awe, as it certainly did here, even if affection is more difficult to muster.

Schoenberg and the other composers of the Second Viennese School also stand close to Bartók’s astounding third quartet. Yet the voice is always Bartók’s own, and that voice was certainly to be heard in this performance. The frozen opening set up melody as the agent for the thaw, yet severity rightly remained, a tightrope between astringency and relaxation successfully navigated in a magnificently tense reading. A Boulezian marriage between exactitude and expressiveness was conducted, especially during the Seconda parte, rhythm and melody co-equals as driving forces behind the music. The players conjured up a veritable kaleidoscope of sounds, never for its own sake, always at the service of the music. I was very much taken by the almost cinematic, freeze-frame quality to the slow down for the Ricapitulazione della prima parte, a developmental recapitulation if ever there were one. What was surely the Bergian – Lyric Suite – inspiration for the scurrying music of the coda was transformed into an utterly Bartókian frenzied outburst of rhythm and melody. This must be one of Bartók’s very greatest works; that was certainly how it sounded on this occasion.

The final work on the programme, though there would also be heard one of the quartet’s customary encores, was the Death and the Maiden quartet. A strikingly low-vibrato opening statement – on dramatic, not ideological grounds – was followed by ever-so-brief consolation, itself leading to vehemence, setting up an almost schizophrenic opposition that would characterise the first movement. This was not comfortable Schubert, which is not to say that it lacked cultivation, only that cultivation was treated as a dramatic tool rather than a given. Intonation, as throughout the programme, was flawless, likewise the unanimity of attack. I do not think I have heard the dactylic kinship of the second movement’s theme with the slow movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony quite so clearly enunciated and meaningfully explored, the sense of a cortège, of movement as well as sadness, so unerringly placed. The variations were very much a journey, a Winterreise. Here we heard undeniable high Romanticism, albeit without the slightest impression of inappropriateness, of being forced, and always within an iron-clad, ‘classical’ command of structure. The growth of intensity during the fifth variation was staggering, not least in its resolution. Young though he might have been, Schubert was raging against the dying of the light. The scherzo opened with a rhythmic insistency that presaged the anvils of Nibelheim, whilst its trio provided finely-judged continuation and contrast, exquisite, but not for its own sake. Finally, the closing Presto proved a veritable dance of death: relentless, but also, crucially, inviting. Such, despite the unfurling whirlwind, was the sweetness of tone from Pierre Colombet’s first violin that it might have been the Devil himself who drew one in.