Pierre Colombet, violin
Gabriel Le Magadure, violin
Mathieu Herzog, alto
Raphaël Merlin, violoncello
Wigmore Hall, July 13
Mozart, Divertimento in F K. 138
Beethoven, String Quartet in C# minor Op. 131
Aimez-vous Beethoven? Scanning the schedule for Wigmore Hall in advance, I didn’t recognize the name of the Quatuor Ébène, but I decided to take a chance on them. They are a rising young ensemble from Paris whose chic group photo could be an ad for Karl Lagerfeld evening wear. Of course, couture isn’t Kultur when it comes to the main item on their short matinee program, Beethoven’s late quartet Op. 131 (which the annotator oddly describes as the “last but one” of the composer’s quartets. Who got kicked off the team, Op. 132 or 135? Actually, he’s referring to date of composition without saying so). I couldn’t recall a single French string quartet who has made a deep impression in the central German repertoire, not on records at least. In the event, the Ébène became my first concert in London this summer.
The four young musicians, all male, are as chic in person as in their photo, and they play with precision and intensity. Their sound is dominated by a strong first violinist who competes with a nearly bipolar cellist – his occasional intrusive outbursts came as rather a shock. The second violin and viola tended to sit back and watch the action, but ensemble is keen-edged and intonation all but perfect. This became evident in a slash-and-burn performance of the short first item, Mozart’s Divertimento in F, K. 138 composed in his mid-teens. I knew this ebullient work only as played by string orchestra, but apparently scholars differ on how many musicians are called for in the manuscript (the violin parts are jointly marked ‘violini’ and the viola part ‘viole,’ so I don’t quite see the ambiguity). Nor do I see why the Ébène played without charm, humor, and relaxed geniality, the touchstones of early Mozart style. Instead, they preferred a quick, nervous approach that left me feeling tense. Perhaps this was in keeping with one of their YouTube videos, an arrangement of the main theme from the neo-noir movie, Pulp Fiction.
They carried those same qualities over into the Beethoven, which can bear a wider range of interpretations. Over the years I’ve heard Beethoven on the symphonic front that side-stepped German tradition fairly radically. I’m thinking in particular of the symphonies recorded by René Leibowitz, Hermann Scherchen, and Igor Markevitch (the last two conductors were not French, of course, but sympathique…non?) where speed, precision, alertness, and a nod to Toscanini were the hallmarks. The Quatuor Ébène went to greater extremes. I’m tempted to say that they arrived with abundant medical credentials rather than musical, or that they forgot Wordsworth’s remark about murdering to dissect. Fierce attack crossed over from the salutary to the sadistic; clear eyes masked cold hearts.
If they overheard my remarks, I imagine the Ébène would reply, “Live with it.” Sanitized, denatured Beethoven has been around for almost thirty years now, once the floodgates were opened by period specialists like Roger Norrington and John Eliot Gardiner, not to mention the barbarian-at-the-gates assault by Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Romanticism has moved down on the menu of options. I shrug. For their efforts the Ébène got a round of clamoring applause, which rather surprised me given the white-haired status of the Wigmore crowd. I did hear grumbles on the way out. Perhaps like me, the Wiggies were applauding the music rather than the performance. It’s glorious to hear the almost unbroken arc of Op. 131, forty-five sublime minutes in Elysium, and there was a mild sunny day to further lift our spirits when we exited on to the street. More than enough compensation for the slight shiver of horror at what went on in the hall.