Monday, 12 December 2011

Quatuor Ebène: Prokofiev, Debussy, and Brahms, 12 December 2011

Wigmore Hall

Prokofiev – String Quartet no.1 in B minor, op.50
Debussy – String Quartet in G minor, op.10
Brahms – String Quartet in A minor, op.51 no.2

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

The Quatuor Ebène’s visits to the Wigmore Hall have proved chamber music highlights of their respective seasons for some time now; the present concert did nothing to buck that trend. This was an evening of superlative quartet playing, even by the players’ own exalted standards, a welcome respite from but also challenge to the vile weather currently sweeping the streets of London.

First on was Prokofiev. There is some fine music to his two quartets, especially in this, his first, though it would be difficult to argue that he was the most natural of string quartet composers. Even the key, B minor, is somewhat perverse, as any cellist will tell you. Not that one would have guessed the problems from this performance, in which, the Ebène quite rightly acted as counsel for the defence. The first movement witnessed the identity of the themes and greater structure clearly and keenly delineated. Intriguingly, here and throughout, this was a more highly-strung – if the pun may be forgiven – Prokofiev who emerged than one often hears in his chamber music, partly a matter in this first movement of a fastish tempo but also, crucially, truly dramatic tension. There was excellent, productive contrast between the players acting as soloists and as part of an ensemble, voices emerging therefrom where called upon, and seamlessly blending back into the texture thereafter. Last but not least was a recognition that, in this music as in so much of the rest of his output, Prokofiev’s greatest gift was as a melodist. Then there came as powerful a contrast, without undue exaggeration, as one might wish for between the slow, vaguely Beethovenian introduction to the slow movement and the ‘Vivace’ proper, its thrills as visceral as they were musical. Rhythmic command and ensemble were outstanding, the quartet rightly playing Prokofiev with the abandon and the coherence one would expect in Bartók. This was Prokofiev the modernist with a vengeance, all the more striking since one expects to find him more readily elsewhere. The final ‘Andante’ permitted each player to present – ‘display’ would give entirely the wrong impression – his particular quality to the turning of a melodic phrase, and equally his own individuality of tone. In the broadest of generalisations, one therefore heard the suavity of cellist Raphaël Merlin, the richness of Mathieu Herzog’s viola, the burning intensity of Gabriel Le Magadure on second violin, and a sweet-toned, Cinderella-like lyricism, tinged with Grumiaux-like elegance from Pierre Colombet’s first violin. At least that was the impression at one point, for the changing demands of the music at its more hysterical would at least partially transform those qualities, to highly dramatic effect. Yet above all, this movement was lyrical, in a fashion out of which its form could emerge as naturally as I have yet to hear.

Debussy’s quartet completed the first half. Its first movement opened in a different yet recognisable manner: suavely graceful, the tone more obviously Gallic, though that certainly did not preclude intensity at climaxes. Indeed this could, where appropriate, be Debussy as impassioned as one might hope for – though never more so. Cyclic concision was a hallmark of the entire reading, not least in the transmission of the crucial triplet figure from the first to the second movement, and also of course beyond. That second movement burned with concentrated intensity, albeit with plenty of opportunity, never overlooked, for refreshment in contrast. Unanimity of ensemble never sounded clinical or slick – one can think of a few well-known quartets for whom that would not have been the case – but arose out of straightforwardly excellent, ever-alert quartet-playing. The ‘Andantino’ was given an elegant, sweetly melodic reading, exhibiting a degree of repose, though only relatively so, for it was no less attentive than any other movement to the relationship between detail and the whole. An urgent but satisfying cyclic unification marked the finale, movement and work becoming much more than the sum of their parts. Everything fell into place, though not bureaucratically; it was more a matter of ultimate victory for an Apollonian imperative.

Brahms’s second quartet was heard after the interval. Again, the sonority one heard could be characterised as different and yet the same. (I thought of Hans Sachs advising Walther that a song cannot always be for spring.) The general sound was more deeply Germanic, as one would expect, yet remained blessed by the elegance and clarity the best Franco-Flemish players have often brought to this repertoire. There was more than a hint of Schubert’s ‘Rosamunde’ Quartet, perhaps especially to the first movement’s second subject, though the motivic working unsurprisingly emerged more tightly-knit. Throughout, the players showed themselves heedful of Brahms’s melodic impulse, which engenders its own passions; there is no need to apply anything from without. Again, the Classical and Romantic were held in well-judged balance and tension during the second movement: not in some abstract equilibrium, but according to the particular needs of the material. The relative minor’s intervention was impassioned and not without influential, but the intermezzo-like mood ultimately if uneasily prevailed. Brahms’s Beethovenian inheritance was readily felt in the alternating, conflicting material of the third movement, vividly dramatised. There was even a hint of Haydn in the faster scherzo music, though Schubert again proved the principal ghost in its more wistful counterpart. The finale made clear that, as ever with Brahms, any ‘Hungarian’ colouring is just that: colouring. The real battle to be fought is ‘German’, through and through, its contrapuntal travails here evoking Beethoven and Bach, whilst inevitably looking forward also to Schoenberg. There was charm too, of an undeniably Viennese variety, though tragedy would out.