Guest Reviewer, David Gutman
And now for something completely different. Having scaled the Olympian heights of a Beethoven String Quartet cycle, the Quatuor Ebène present this spookily nocturnal concept album. The packaging is designer-led in black and peach. Monochrome trees under a starlit sky provide the linking visual thread, inspiring similarly looming shots of the participants. Never mind that the printed matter is too small for some of us to read. There is a sense in which criticism feels superfluous now. After the ensemble lost its original violist in 2015 (Mathieu Herzog is making his name as a conductor), there was a period in which things threatened to fall apart but the arrival of a third violist, Marie Chilemme in 2017, has had a stabilising effect. Today’s group is routinely ranked among the best in the World.
The main works here have been in the players’ repertoire for years, only now they are stylistically connected by Night Bridge* based on four jazz standards with something of the night about them. Raphaël Merlin, the quartet’s cellist, has created something more ambitious than the transcriptions of jazz, pop and film classics which habitually cap their more conventional chamber music concerts. This kind of contemporary construct ranges far and wide, obscuring traditional notions of jazz improvisation let alone the original harmonies, to take in fabricated shellac swish, Grappelli-like figuration, Bartókian night-music and more. Antoine Tamestit and Nicolas Altstaedt, ‘borrowed’ from rival record companies, also take part.
The Ebène’s fresh, hyper-engaged style certainly suits the Dutilleux which opens the programme. When some quartets turn to Ainsi la nuit, the focus on surmounting its technical challenges can rob the twelve short sections of their dreamlike poetry. Not so here for all that the dynamic range and precision of articulation are probably unprecedented in this music. We are very tangibly present in the venue, a barn transformed into a concert, performance and recording hall with a capacity of 300 seats. The sound is well-lit and immediate in a way not everyone will like when it comes to Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht. No shrinking violet, leader Pierre Colombet has a somewhat penetrating sound as miked. Still, it’s perhaps an over-familiarity with the composer’s version for string orchestra that conditions us to expect warmer, more settled timbres and textures from the sextet.
On its own terms this is another quite extraordinary performance, sharply drawn, sensuous when required and finally iridescent. Turn out the lights if it helps but you don’t have to follow the booklet’s obsession with the muse of darkness to enjoy this release. Erato 9029664190.
Quatuor Ébène [Pierre Colombet & Gabriel Le Magadure (violins), Marie Chilemme (viola) & Raphaël Merlin (cello)]
Recorded at La Ferme de Villefavard, Limousin, during August 2020
*[Moon River (Henry Mancini), Night and Day (Cole Porter), Stella by Starlight (Victor Young) and Round Midnight (Thelonious Monk)]