‘round midnight: Dutilleux, Merlin, Schönberg

Quatuor Ébène

Antoine Tamestit

Nicolas Altstaedt

Packaging: 1CD Digipack

Int. Release date CD: 1 October 2021

Digipack: 0190296641909 – SHRM: 0190296641886

The members of Quatuor Ébène went round the world with the complete Beethoven quartets, now they go ‘Round Midnight. This album offers a creatively conceived programme, bringing together major figures from different streams of 20th music: Arnold Schönberg, Henri Dutilleux and four masters of jazz and popular idioms – Thelonious Monk, Cole Porter, Henry Mancini and Victor Young.

The three works in question, all nocturnally-themed, are: Schönberg’s passionate late-Romantic sextet Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), composed in 1899, for which the quartet is joined by viola-player Antoine Tamestit and cellist Nicolas Altstaedt; Dutilleux’s glistening quartet Ainsi la nuit, first heard in 1978 and comprising seven brief movements, and Night bridge, a ‘nocturnal poem for string sextet’ composed by the Ébène’s cellist Raphaël Merlin. It muses on Monk’s jazz standard ‘Round Midnight, dating from around 1940, on Mancini’s ‘Moon River; made famous by the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s, on Porter’s urbane and haunting ‘Night and Day’, originally a hit in 1932, and on ‘Stella by Starlight’ originally composed by Victor Young for the 1944 film The Uninvited.

Quatuor Ébène’s capacities for crossing genres have already been proven with such albums as Eternal Stories, Fiction and Brazil. As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote after a 2018 concert which set Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis beside Haydn and Fauré: “… This quartet knows and loves its jazz. The hits rolled into one another smoothly, with cellist Raphaël Merlin acting as emcee … A cello is not a string bass, but Mr Merlin capitalized on the nimbleness of his instrument, conjuring a new feeling to some old favorites. The same can be said of the other members (Pierre Colombet and Gabriel Le Magadure, violins; Marie Chilemme, viola) — it wasn’t a pure reproduction of ‘‘Round Midnight’ or [Wayne Shorter’s] ‘Footprints’, rather, a highly trained string quartet’s impression of the songs … It was eminently diggable.”

Raphaël Merlin points out that the night, surrounding us with darkness, has a special power to heighten our appreciation of music. “Is there any other time when we listen more closely?” he asks. “Our hearing becomes exceptionally acute, we find ourselves as alert as an animal … especially receptive to new impressions … It offers all kinds of possibilities to a composer.”

In 2017, Quatuor Ébène even played the programme of ‘Round Midnight (expanded with additional short works by Dutilleux and Salvatore Sciarrino) in a series of concerts in Germany, Austria and Spain where the only light in the hall emanated from the players’ music stands. Especially atmospheric for the audience must have been the moment in ‘Night and Day’ when the four musicians used their strings and bows to recreate the nostalgic repetitive ‘swish’ of a 78 rpm recording.