May 10, 2011
Kammermusiksaal der Philharmonie

Magical Moments

Quatuor Ebene plays in Berlin


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Divertimento in D major, K 136
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
String Quartet No. 1 in D major Op. 11
Ludwig van Beethoven
String Quartet in C-sharp minor Op. 131


Quatuor Ebene

Leserbrief/readers comment Druckversion/printversion

Magical Moments

Quatuor Ebene plays in Berlin

by Anicia Timberlake / Photo:

Quatuor Ebene

Despite their reputation for singing their encores, the Quatuor Ebene seems to delight, first and foremost, in being a string quartet, in exploring the sounds that only string instruments can make. Their performance was simultaneously a top-notch musical interpretation and a study in inventive, joyful string playing.

The program opened with Mozart's best-known divertimento. The quartet as a whole applied a light touch to the piece, letting first violinist Pierre Colombet take over most of the sound; the little melodic details in the second violin and viola never stuck out of the texture. In the first movement, Colombet was the consummate soloist, wearing a wide range of characters with ease—the piano repetitions of forte phrases were words spoken by different people, not just words heard in an echo. The solo part sparkled not because Colombet played with exact rhythms and a clear, even tone, but precisely because he did not—his runs were ever so slightly irregular and unpredictable. The effect was warm and joyously flirtatious.

String players often tend to play slow movements, especially Mozart slow movements, as if they wished they were singers, emphasizing the aspects that would sound best sung by a voice. The quartet played the lyrical slow movement as string players, using timbres specific to their instruments: floating the bow over the fingerboard, accentuating the careful vibrato on one specific note. In this spirit, the third movement's most memorable detail was when violist Mathieu Herzog played his accompanying eighth-notes all up-bow, with a touch of col legno (playing with the wood of the bow), as if calling attention to the fact that the sound was, after all, being produced by an arrangement of wood, steel, and horsehair.

One of the quartet's greatest strengths is their ability to play perfectly together—not just beginning and ending each note at the same time, but matching vibrato, dynamics, and timbre such that they do, indeed, sound like one player. (They do this so well that I feel I have, until now, used this metaphor much too liberally.) This strength shone in the first two movements of the Tchaikovsky, which both feature long homophonic sections. They played less convincingly in the sections that require the four players to compete as soloists: these sections would have benefited from a selfish confidence that they were, perhaps, unwilling to assume. This delicacy, on the other hand, was wonderfully suited to the second movement, one of those pieces that usually seduces violinists into a ritard on every third note. Instead, they played the movement plainly: psalm-like, without stretching the tempo. When, finally, certain notes were graced with the tiniest amount of rubato, the effect was truly fine. The energetic last movement ended, wonderfully, with the quartet members nearly leaping out of their chairs after the last note.

After the quartet had finished performing Beethoven, at the—perhaps—sixth curtain call, they returned without their instruments and announced that normally they would play an encore, but "after Beethoven C-sharp minor, there can be no encore." This is one of those things people often say about this piece—that nothing can come after it—and it was even more fitting for this performance of the piece, which never took the safe way out. The quartet played the first of seven movements, a stark fugue, slowly and mostly without vibrato, which made every tiny detail audible. This risky approach to sound was, to my ear, a central part of their interpretation. They emphasized certain physical aspects of string playing, taking extremely slow and apparent bow changes, using vibrato not to warm up expressive notes or fix their intonation but almost, perhaps, to call attention to the strange act of producing vibrato. The fugue, which often sounds awkward, did not sound any less awkward. But the awkwardness, suddenly, made sense: they seemed to embrace it, not seek to mask it. The fourth movement, a warm set of variations, was especially well suited to their changeable style. Here, too, awkwardness was on display, but a little more tongue-in-cheek: a smooth variation in which each phrase ends with a viola and a cello pizzicato was disturbed, each time, by cellist Raphaël Merlin playing the pizzicato much too loudly, with an ungainly thwack as the string hit the fingerboard. The hyperactive fifth movement is an exercise in coordination, and their superior coordination made it breathtaking. The most magical moment is when all four instruments play the often-repeated melody ponticello, or on the bridge, producing a glassy sound; the quartet's homogeneity of sound made this passage sound like it was being played by a toy instrument at a great distance. Their command of ensemble playing meant, also, that they occasionally played ever so slightly not together, giving moments that are meant to sound chaotic (even when played with total precision) an extra touch of drama.

The performance of this last piece was dangerous in the best possible way—the players seemed to be making new interpretive choices on the spot, knowing that the group would respond. Even the moments where this did not work seamlessly seemed to be sources of joy for the players, who kept smiling at each other as if there were no greater pleasure than this unforgiving, unwieldy piece. I felt the same way.