Friday, April 19, 2013

Review: Ebène Quartet

April 18, University of Richmond

France’s Ebène Quartet lived up to the buzz that preceded its first Richmond appearance, in a blazing yet lyrical reading of Tchaikovsky’s Quartet No. 1 in D major and an unusually intense and moody reading of Schubert’s Quartet in A minor, known as the “Rosamunde.”

The ensemble plays in the French fiddle style, with a twist. Violinists Pierre Colombet and Gabriel le Magadure produce brilliant, relatively lean tone with tightly focused pitch; the playing of violist Mathieu Herzog and cellist Raphaël Merlin is more softly textured, with wider vibrato, giving the group’s collective sound a richer and more tonally subtle “bottom.”

This contrast is especially effective in softer passages. In the minuet of the Schubert, for example, Merlin’s cello evoked the sonic equivalent of fog drifting over water. Similar visual analogues suggested themselves in the more lyrical or atmospheric sections of the Tchaikovsky, especially in the muted string tones of its familiar andante cantabile movement.

In Mozart’s “Dissonant” Quartet (the C major, K. 465), the distance between high-string brilliance and the soft focus of low strings was more pronounced and, to my ears, more problematic. Ensemble playing remained tight and detailed, but the details of bass lines seemed rather blurred.

This program, a sampler of greatest hits of the classical and romantic string-quartet literature, left the impression that the Ebène is at its best in poetically expressive and/or high-energy romanticism.

The encore briefly showcased the “other Ebène,” as the French call the group when it turns to jazz and other non-classical repertory. The foursome positively sizzled in its arrangement of the Greek dance tune made popular in the the Quentin Tarrantino film “Pulp Fiction.”