Ebene Quartet: The Art Of The French String Quartet
From The 2011 Savannah Music Festival
by Tom Huizenga
The versatile young members of the Ebène Quartet have been pricking up a few ears lately. It’s due to their recent genre-twisting album Fiction, in which they indulge their fantasy of functioning not as a classical string quartet but as a jazz combo. The album brims with surf-rock tunes, pop songs, movie themes and jazz standards, offered up with inventive arrangements and extraordinarily agile performances.
Ravel: String Quartet in F Major
Faure: String Quartet in E minor, Op. 121
Debussy:String Quartet in G minor, Op.10
But playing The Beatles, Bruce Springsteen and Wayne Shorter is not how the Paris-based group earned its considerable reputation. That came from performing string quartets by Debussy, Ravel and Fauré in a fresh, irresistible way. Two years ago, their album of that very repertoire won record of the year from Gramophone magazine, which described the Ebène players as giving “the impression of having been born into this music, breathing its rarefied air and yet making each work a unique, compelling listening experience.”
It’s easy to tell what the Gramophone people were talking about in listening to this Savannah concert, which, like that award-winning album, features that triumvirate of early 20th century Frenchmen and their fascinating, far-reaching string quartets.
The string quartets by Ravel and Debussy (they wrote just one quartet each) have been well-represented by countless groups, but the Ebène players seem to paint with both a richer and subtler palette. Their reading of the slow movement of the Ravel quartet is a great example of — dare we say it — impressionism in music, with its entrancing array of muted colors and flickering lights.
Some of the DNA found in Ravel and Debussy’s quartets comes from Gabriel Fauré, the forward-thinking composer, pianist and teacher who was a leading force in French music for more than 50 years. Born in 1845, he was 17 years older than Debussy and 30 years older than Ravel, whom he taught at the Paris Conservatoire.
Like Beethoven, Fauré became deaf long before he quit composing. His String Quartet in E minor, not often performed, is densely packed in its opening allegro and andante movements, sometimes feeling devoid of the sunny moments that populate his other chamber pieces. But Fauré lets loose in the finale (and so do the Ebène players), as if casting off past memories to live exuberantly in the moment. As it turned out, the quartet was Fauré’s final composition. He died seven weeks later at age 79.
We are fortunate to have a clutch of young, extremely talented string quartets in action today — Pavel Haas, Belcea, Pacifica, JACK, Chiara, to name just a few. But none except the Ebène Quartet can sing four-part harmony on tunes like “Someday My Price Will Come,” improvise solos on standards like “Nature Boy,” shred with conviction on the surf-rock classic “Misirlou” and uncover the unique sound world of Fauré, Debussy and Ravel.