Mercy! Mercy! Merci! The Quatuor Ebène, err, Trio Ebène, managed to impress Valentine revelers on a fine Sunday afternoon of Music at the Clark – even while playing on only three strings! Violinist Pierre Colombet was unable to travel for medical reasons, so ebony (ebène) was added by noted pianist Orion Weiss as he joined the remaining members of Quatuor Ebène for a once-in-a-lifetime piano quartet. The resulting ensemble was inspired at times, driven by pure adrenalin coursing through the technical and artistic demands of the music and its circumstances.
Needless to say, the program was hurriedly assembled, and the stress on the artists was easily visible. Schubert and Brahms replaced the voluptuary of impressionist masterworks originally scheduled for the concert; only Gabriel Fauré’s work persevered onto this program.
Fauré’s Piano Quartet No. 2 was extraordinary. It was stunning. The reason for the acclaim surrounding Ebène’s recent CD was evident. These guys understand Fauré instinctively as cognoscenti, and thus while a piano quartet may not play in the typical Ebène repertoire, they truly get it anyway. The combination of their au fait Fauré interpretation with Weiss’ masterful piano was simply stunning – goosebumps stunning.
Weiss’ and Ebène’s métier saved the day to our delight with this delectation of the finest of French repertoire. Weiss floated along phrasings that belied a legerdemain seldom witnessed; he was unfettered by the extraordinary technical demands of the music. Violist Mathieu Herzog imbued an eloquence to Fauré’s viola passages that was undeniable. Cellist Raphaël Merlin displayed his sedulous technique that glued the ensemble solidly together. Gabriel Le Magadure’s violin filled the room effortlessly; its timbre was redolent with bright, vibrant woody undertones. Fauré’s quartet was fiery at times, yet eloquent and sensuous. The ensemble was charged, seemingly unbridled, flowing with the intensity of the music. So many interpretations vitiate the Impressionist manner; this one was obviously fresh yet maintained its integrity.
The opening Schubert Trio for Strings in B-flat Major, D.581 was safe and light, but still proved interesting. Merlin immediately captured the attention with his playful lines, and his disport portrayed a distinctly pleasant personality; he gave it heart. The players liberally applied their signature dynamic flair and sonorous blend that made for an interesting rendition. In light of Valentine’s Day and the circumstances surrounding the program, the lightweight opener was successful; it found a groove for Quatuor minus one, relaxed everyone and opened with a smile. Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 60 was the post-intermission fare. After the Fauré, Brahms held his own, but the brilliance of the day had largely passed.
The young Ebène Quartet has enjoyed meteoric fame this year, having become one of the world’s most sought-after quartets. They won “Recording of the Year” at the 2009 Classic FM Gramophone Awards for their disc of Debussy, Ravel, and Fauré string quartets, only the third time that a chamber ensemble has been awarded this prestigious prize.
We can still only imagine what Quatuor Ebène must sound like in vivo, but based on what I saw and heard, they must be even better in person given their expressions of individual body language – e.g., the glances, the tautness of the facial lines, the rise of the brow, the arc of the bow, their unison twists and turns – that made for an emotional gestural communication between the artists and the audience as well. There was no doubt why there is so much international buzz that surrounds this group.
The Clark Library was a chamber musician’s delight, with a healthy dose of reverberation in a rectangular space with heavy carved wooden walls and high ceiling. At times the volume was hair-raising, especially of the piano quartets.
We are unlikely again to hear such fine artists taxing the depth of their abilities at the limits of their comfort zones. These four musicians will talk about this event for years to come. I know that my disappointment was completely forgotten, replaced by a serendipitous flash of brilliance that I likely never will forget.
Did I say the Fauré was stunning?