Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Impressive Debut

Founded in 1999, the Ébène String Quartet is a relatively new voice in the chamber music world. The youthfulness of this quartet extends to their repertoire, with works from the core repertoire, contemporary music, jazz and pop music. A quick search on Youtube reveals the ensemble performing music from the film Pulp Fiction as well as a tune by the Beetles.

This talented ensemble made their debut in Vancouver last night under the auspices of the city’s Friends of Chamber Music, in an intense and rather dark-hued programme of quartets by Haydn, Bartok, and Mendelssohn.

In his Quartet in F Minor, Op. 20, No. 5, Haydn establishes the F Minor tonality right at the outset of the work, and this rather dark key colour extends to the Menuetto as well as the fugue of the final movement. Rather unusually, there isn’t much relief in the Haydnesque humour that we so often find in his quartets, symphonies and piano sonatas, but the composer does give us a brief respite from the intense emotion in the beautiful Adagio movement, with its lovely solo for the first violin. In the 4th movement, Haydn, again unusually, gives us a fugue, thereby taking us away from the 1st violin-dominated texture of the other three movements. The young quartet played this work with impeccable tightness in ensemble and poise, and the intense and difficult 4th movement fugue was carried off with panache, leaving the audience breathless from this intense conversation between the four instruments.

It is a blessing that the six quartets of Bartok have now really become a core of the string quartet repertoire. The Ébène gave us the relatively short but intense Quartet No. 3, Sz 85, composed in 1927. The four “movements” are played without interruption, and the effect is that of an uninterrupted stream of consciousness. In some ways, the denseness and brutality of the final section serve as a relief, a catharsis from the tension that had been building from the first notes. The players rose to the technical, musical, and emotional challenges of the work, and gave us a performance that moved as well as stunned the audience.

As much as Felix Mendelssohn is considered a “great” composer, there are so many of his compositions that are not often performed. We can think of the first two symphonies, many of his piano pieces and chamber works, as well as the oratorios, music that never really made it into the standard repertoire of orchestras and solo players. I am grateful to the Ébène Quartet for giving us a beautiful performance of the composer’s Quartet in A Minor, Op. 13. Reading the Quartet’s website, I found out that the players have been championing the quartets of Mendelssohn, both Felix and Fanny. They recorded Mendelssohn’s Op. 13 and 80 Quartets, as well as the only string quartet composed by Fanny Mendelssohn, the composer’s beloved sister.

In spite of the string writing that is typical of Mendelssohn - delicate and fleeting runs for especially the violinists - we find in works such as the scherzo movements of his Qctet and the incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream; this is a highly serious work, emotionally as well as musically. I believe that the most telling sign of a great performance is the silence of the audience between movements. Last night, it seemed that the audience did not even dare to breathe during the pauses. At the end of the fourth movement, when Mendelssohn recalls the musical material of the Adagio movement, there was a brief silence before the applause and ovation commenced. The musicians accepted the plaudits graciously, but did not grant us an encore, perhaps feeling that the mood of the three quartets performed would have been broken with an additional work.

As ever, there were empty seats throughout the small hall last night. Where were all the young people in the city who are taking music lessons? Those who missed last night’s concert, perhaps not knowing the name of the ensemble, certainly deprived themselves of a very special musical experience.

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