By Dennis D. Rooney
Appearing March 11 under the auspices of the Society of the Four Arts , the four French players known as Quatuor Ébène presented a bifurcated program.
The first half was wholly traditional: Franz Joseph Haydn’s Quartet in D minor (Op. 72, No. 2) and Gabriel Fauré’s late Quartet (in E minor, Op. 121). The second half was devoted to eight jazz pieces. Their interest in programming the latter grew out of their playing jazz as a distraction when they were students at the Boulogne-Billancourt Conservatory.
Founded there in 1999, they began to attract attention in 2004 by winning the ARD Music Competition. Violinists Pierre Colombet and Gabriel le Magadure, and cellist Raphaël Merlin are all founding members. In almost three decades, only the viola chair has changed. Marie Chilemme has occupied it since 2017. Except for Chilemme, they play instruments loaned by the Forberg-Schneider Foundation: Colombet on a violin by Francesco Ruggieri, ca. 1680; la Magadure on a mid-18th century violin with a Guarneri label; and Merlin on a cello by Andrea Guarneri (1666/1680). Chilemme plays an instrument by the Viennese maker Marcellus Hollmayr.
The benefits of stability and long acquaintance to the Ébène’s sound were immediately obvious in their supple account of Haydn’s Quinten, in which descending fifths announce the opening Allegro. Tonally fleet, with carefully proportioned dynamics and a pleasingly sec quality, they negotiated the work’s changing moods across its four movements, the second of which, Andantino, is a theme and variations. The dark Menuetto and Trio earned the nickname “Witches’ Minuet” for its prickly character. The final Vivace assai is more playful and humorous, ending in the tonic major.
Fauré’s only string quartet is his last work, composed in 1923-24. The composer never heard it. His last years were spent in deafness, and hearing music was disagreeable because of the distorted sounds it produced.
Aside from its chronology, the character of the work is definitely tinged with valediction. He rummaged in his trunk to find an unfinished violin concerto of 1878 from which he took the Allegro moderato’s two themes. He composed the middle movement, Andante, first. It is the work’s expressive core and is colored by liturgical modes.
The final Allegro is more animated, with a few pizzicato touches that Fauré may have added due to their presence in the quartets of his pupils Debussy and Ravel. First violin Colombet played eloquently in the Andante. Throughout, the teamwork of all four was exemplary and perfectly proportioned expressively, never becoming overheated.
The second half began with prefatory remarks by violinist la Magadure, explaining that they program jazz because “some might be intimidated by classical music.” They began with “Footprints” by saxophonist Wayne Shorter and ended with “Nature Boy,” written in 1948 by Eden Ahbez and popularized by Nat “King” Cole.
Works followed in succession by Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, “Unrequited” by the pianist Brad Mehldau, and Errol Garner’s “Misty.” All were sympathetically played, reflecting a genuine affinity for the genre. My only observation is that they soon began to sound the same. A small jazz ensemble has far more instrumental variety than can be achieved by four stringed instruments, particularly the percussive attacks of woodwind, brass, and piano. I marked it a worthy but unsuccessful experiment.