Saturday, March 10, 2018

Ébène Offers a Haydn-Beethoven Coupling

Last night the Ébène Quartet, consisting of violinists Pierre Colombet and Gabriel Le Magadure, violist Adrien Boisseau, and cellist Raphaël Merlin, returned to Herbst Theatre, giving their third recital presented by San Francisco Performances (SFP). Their past appearances involved concerts in both the Jazz Series and the Chamber Series; and last night was the third of the four programs in the 2017–2018 Chamber Series. Boisseau only recently joined the ensemble, so last night’s appearance was also part of her first American tour.

Probably through coincidence, last night’s program turned out to be a successor of sorts to the second concert in the series, the debut performance by the Danish String Quartet a little less than a month ago. That program concluded with the first (in F major) of the three Opus 59 quartets that the composer wrote in 1806 for the Russian ambassador in Vienna, Count Andreas Razumovsky. Last night Ébène concluded their program with the second (in E minor) of those quartets.

While these two quartets differ significantly in overall mood (shifting from major to minor), they both have slow movements that mark Beethoven’s move to express himself through longer and longer durational scales. He would continue to pursue these lengths through the remainder of his middle period, with a culmination in 1811 found in the Andante cantabile movement of his Opus 97 (“Archduke”) piano trio in B-flat major. That pursuit would continue even more ambitiously throughout his late period, where it can found in his symphonic writing, his solo piano music, and, of course, his final string quartets.

The best performances of these experiments with prolonged duration are the ones in which the performers can convey a sense of time almost coming to a halt. I have listened to too many performances of the E minor quartet to try to rank order my preferences. However, listening to Ébène last night, I found myself, once again, drawn into the sheer wonder of the power of such extended duration. Time might not have come to a full stop, but it certainly came close. In addition, one could appreciate the extent to which this Molto adagio movement served as a major-key separator between the rhythmically frenetic opening Allegro and the following restless Allegretto, in which a sense of scherzo is present only through a vague family resemblance of the overall architecture. (The major mode then returns in the concluding Presto.) Winter is turning out to be a good time for Beethoven’s middle-period quartets, at least where SFP is involved.

Ébène also used their program to allow reflection on the relationship between Beethoven and his teacher Joseph Haydn. They began the program with Haydn’s Hoboken III/76, the second (in D minor) of the six quartets published as Opus 76 and written for József Erdődy. This collection was completed in the summer of 1797 after Haydn returned from his second trip to London. (It was after the first trip that Haydn met the young Beethoven and advised him to come to Vienna to continue his music studies.)

Ironically, 1798 was the year in which Beethoven finally worked up enough confidence to take on the string quartet genre. Beethoven’s relationship with Haydn was not the friendliest (to say the least); but I have long held that Haydn’s achievements placed bars that Beethoven then set about to clear at a distinctively greater height. The Opus 76 quartets are ambitious in their approach to the genre, and the D minor quartet may be the most ambitious in the set. The opening gesture of a theme based on descending fifths was bold for its time and probably piqued Beethoven’s attention. Similarly, the idea of writing a Menuetto movement based on a rigidly imitative canon would have raised the eyebrows of the players, if not the listeners.

The opening of Haydn’s Menuetto (Dover Publication reprint of Eulenburg score, from IMSLP, public domain)

Haydn may have been 65 when he wrote his Opus 76 collection; but it is clear that he was forward-looking in his approach. If Beethoven had set himself to best his former master, Opus 76 could well have been an excellent source of provocation. Ébène saw no need to shy away from the provocative nature of the D minor quartet, perhaps even suggesting that the extent of any rivalry between master and student was cutting both ways. Beethoven may have thrown down the gauntlet when he dedicated his Opus 2 piano sonatas to Haydn. If so then Opus 76 may have been Haydn’s reminding Beethoven that the old dog could still master new tricks.

With minor-key quartets both beginning and ending the program, placing another minor-key quartet between them was a bold decision. However, the rhetorical stance differed significantly from both the Haydn and the Beethoven selections. The selection was Gabriel Fauré’s Opus 121 quartet in E minor, the only piece of chamber music that Fauré wrote that does not require a piano. He completed this piece within months of his death on November 4, 1924; but, in contrast to Haydn’s Opus 76, this is very much a retrospective gesture.

Ironically, Fauré had been very sympathetic to the new generation that had ushered in the twentieth century. He had been Maurice Ravel’s teacher; and Ravel’s only string quartet, completed in 1903, was dedicated to Fauré. (It was also modeled on Debussy’s only string quartet, which had been written in 1893.) In other words Fauré was well aware of how things were changing during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, he used his own quartet to look back on his earlier days; and it is not hard to miss the prevailing rhetoric of melancholy. Ébène seemed keenly aware of how that rhetoric separated this piece from their other selections; and the overall result was a program offering a journey through a wide variety of reflections on past, present, and future.

I had hoped that Ébène would use their encore to present the jazz side of their repertoire. Their selection was Miles Davis’ “Milestones.” Ironically, this was the third track on the debut album released by the Turtle Island String Quartet, another group to have performed in the SFP Jazz Series. Of course where jazz is concerned, recordings can only take a distant back seat to the immediacy of performance.

Given that Ébène was playing without charts, there was no question of their own capacity for immediacy; and the result was an eyebrow-raising account of Davis’ spirit being “born again” through string quartet instruments. Personally, I was particularly taken with how cellist Merlin managed to channel the spirit of Paul Chambers’ bass work. Mind you, it was clear that Ébène was not trying to imitate the quintet that first recorded this music, but their own innovative jamming brought back fond memories of the original source.

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