Mozart – Divertimento for string quartet in D major, KV 136/125a
Bartók – String Quartet no.2, op.17
Pierre Colombet, Gabriel Le Magadure (violins)
Mathieu Herzog (viola)
Raphaël Merlin (violoncello)
What a pleasure it was to welcome back the Quatuor Ebène to the Wigmore Hall. This Sunday morning ‘coffee concert’ proved every inch the equal in quality to a full-scale evening performance. First came Mozart: KV 136/125a. What’s in a name? Sometimes everything, sometimes not so much. I am not sure one should read too much into the programme leaflet’s description of a divertimento as opposed to a string quartet: this D major work can be called either and I hedged my bets above by following another possibility, ‘divertimento for string quartet’. At any rate, the Ebènes gave a performance utterly without condescension, fully worthy of the elevated title ‘string quartet’, whilst also paying homage – as, after all, does so much mature Mozart – to the divertimento tradition. The opening Allegro was full of life, nicely shaded, with some truly beautiful soft playing. There was mystery in the minor mode and pizzicati of the development section and throughout a properly vocal treatment of phrasing. The richly expansive Andante captured perfectly the balance between stillness and motion, achieving both and elevating both to a higher level. Again, the players’ dynamic shading was near miraculous, without the slightest hint of fussiness. And yes, there was that vital – in more than one – sense of the outdoor serenade. Finally came the Haydnesque Presto: helter-skelter yet with poise retained. Above all, it was fun.
From a wonderful early work to an acknowledged masterpiece: Bartók’s second quartet. I was struck immediately by a certain French – or at least Franco-Flemish – quality to the string playing. This later showed itself to be not merely a matter of house style, but also, perhaps more so, a particular characterisation of the first movement. Echoes or pre-echoes of Debussy, Ravel, perhaps even Prokofiev – and not necessarily in their string quartet writing – drew us into a harmonic world that suggested the exploratory cosmopolitanism of Bartók’s Four Orchestral Pieces, op.12. Also striking from the outset was the marriage, indeed mutual incitement, of unanimity and individual voice, both of which developed according to the music’s dictates. The intensity of climaxes and would-be climaxes in this opening Andante brought out kinship with the Second Viennese School, again reminding one of the op.12 pieces. Moreover, and I almost wish I could find something negative to say but cannot, there was a well nigh perfect relationship between motivic integrity and overall structure. Each contributed to the other. Raphaël Merlin’s cello tone more than once brought Pierre Fournier to mind: suave, understated even, but there was no denying the power of the bass line where necessary.
The second movement immediately announced a different ‘character’. Magyar urgency and irregularity dramatised within a framework of absolute, yet never clinical, rhythmic precision. Crucially, the music sang. Wildness within overall structure once again ensured that each contributed to the other: a quintessentially modernist dialectic. The frozen viol-like opening of the final Lento truly took one’s breath away, likewise the gradual thaw. An especially impressive passage heard sorrow from Pierre Colombet’s plangent first violin, intensified by Gabriel Le Magadure’s second violin response, still further by Colombet in his response, whereupon Mathieu Herzog’s viola and Merlin’s cello could also join the throng: the magical effect of a celestial choir swelling, but behind it a great deal of consideration as to how every phrase should sound and contribute to the whole. Quiet intensity was every bit as expressive as its more obviously passionate counterpart. This was a memorable performance indeed.