Hope Prevails With Quatuor Ébène at Savannah

Ébène and Daniel Hope at Savanah Music Festival

By Perry Tannenbaum

Celebrated for their recordings of Fauré, Debussy, and Ravel, the Quatuor Ébène have shown themselves to be equally comfortable in repertoire by Haydn, Mozart, Bartók, the Mendelssohn siblings, Jobim, Piazzola, Sting, and Erroll Garner. The string quartet is currently touring the US with new infusions of Beethoven, culminating with an all-Beethoven program at Carnegie Hall on March 31 and a Beethoven-Debussy mix at the Kimmel Center six nights later.

Yet Savannah Music Festival artistic director Rob Gibson and violin colossus Daniel Hope, the festival’s associate artistic director for classical programming, could legitimately claim a coup for the Ébène’s return to Savannah, where they had played an all-French program in 2011. Wowed by their performance of the Ravel, Hope had prevailed upon the quartet to join him and pianist Simon Crawford-Phillips in Ernest Chausson’s Concert in D Major for Violin, Piano and String Quartet.

Prior to intermission, the program foreshadowed what New Yorkers will hear on Friday at Carnegie: the String Quartet in B-flat, Opus 18, No. 6, followed by the String Quartet No. 11 in F Minor, Opus 95, “Serioso.” Based on the performances we heard down in Savannah, New York concertgoers need only fear that what follows after intermission might be anticlimactic.

Having listened to the great recorded Beethoven traversals of the past by the Takács, Tokyo, Guarneri, Juilliard, Italiano, Alban Berg, and Budapest quartets, I still found the live performances by the Quatuor Ébène at Trinity United Methodist Church astonishing. Part of the wonder, no doubt, was the church’s acoustics, even friendlier to strings than to either vocal or keyboard performances – though I’ve never heard its gilded organ pipes in action.

More decisive were the ensemble’s creamy approach to the harmonized sections of the score, the conversational interplay of the musicians, and the sheer excellence of first violinist Pierre Colombet. Of the recent surveys I’ve listened to, only the Belcea Quartet comes close in their recording of the B-flat Quartet No. 6 to matching the relish that Ébène took in the harmonious ritardandos of the opening Allegro con brio movement, which usually sound like lulls between the fireworks. That same attention to detail was also evident within those fireworks as the quartet zestfully leapt upon the opening exposition, varying tempos and dynamics with restless precision.

What surprised me most, from musicians making their first forays into Beethoven’s quartets, was the liveliness of their interplay. Adrien Boisseau sounded buoyant when he peeped in on viola, and the dialogue between Colombet and cellist Raphaël Merlin was even richer, the first responses by the cello playful and the last answer delivered with abrupt, prankish ferocity. Colombet’s artistry was more exquisite in the ensuing Adagio, as he floated lyrically above the soft accompanying trio before gracefully landing with a couple of delicate pizzicato chords.

In the bubbly Scherzo, Colombet and second violinist Gabriel La Magadure drove the music, darting around unpredictably while the lower strings were restrained. Any worries that the Ébènes might not be up to the demands of heavier Beethoven were largely dispelled in the “Malinconia” section of the final movement. Slow, and darkly harmonized, Merlin’s cello was especially morose as the instrumental lines diverged, until Colombet ignited a quicker, folksier tempo.

While no one questions the position of Quartet No. 6 as the last of Beethoven’s early Opus 18 period, offering tantalizing hints of the more turbulent middle period ahead, the No. 11 “Serioso” seems to lie slightly on the cusp. Nearly all quartets group the F Minor Opus 95 with their Rasumovsky and “Harp” recordings from the middle period, but a few let it lead off their compilations of the Late Quartets.

With the onset of the opening Allegro con brio, the Quatuor Ébène emphatically let us know, in a stunning wave of collective turbulence, that their most intense ferocity and flame throwing still lay ahead. Not immediately, of course, for middle Beethoven is ever mercurial, and we’re never sure if he’s wickedly mischievous with his surprises or divinely deranged. The opening storm soon gives way to reflective unrest, enabling a second onrushing wave to be more ferocious – cycling back and forth to a quiescent close.

Quiet returned throughout mournful Allegretto, beginning with Merlin’s lachrymose intro on cello, transitioning to a fugal section launched by Boisseau’s viola, and growing exquisitely slow and eerie with Colombet softly ascending the treble. Now came the time for peak ferocity, a final fury somehow kept in reserve, as we moved without pausing into the signature Allegro assai vivace ma serioso movement.

Diabolically, the pause missing at the start of this movement gets transferred to the middle – more than once after comparative lulls. Even when I knew another sforzando was coming after the second pause, it came with a jolt. Lacking the same fury as the Serioso movement, the concluding Larghett0-Allegretto might have been sorely anticlimactic if it weren’t so melodious and joyful, the contagious tune handed to each of the musicians as part of the jocund farewell.

It isn’t the last we’ll be hearing of Beethoven’s music at the Savannah Music Festival this year. The special Ébène event came between two “Beethoven and Beyond” concerts fronted by violinists Hope and Benny Kim with pianists Crawford-Phillips and Sebastian Knauer, backed by a quartet festival regulars. Each of those concerts had a Beethoven piece paired with works by his musical contemporaries or descendants – before and after intermission. My deadline for this review strikes in the middle of another mammoth Beethoven event, Stewart Goodyear’s three-concert “Sonatathon,” presenting all 32 piano sonatas in a single morning, afternoon, and evening.

A kind of closure with Beethoven will happen this Saturday when the Dover Quartet follows the latest of Mozart’s “Prussian” quartets with two late Beethovens, No. 13 in B-flat and the Grosse Fuge. Cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han add a charming coda next week when they perform the 12 Variations on Handel’s “See the Conqu’ring Hero” in the middle of a program that includes pieces by Bach, Shostakovich, and Rachmaninov.

Amid a 17-day festival that also embraces jazz, blues, bluegrass, country, pop, and world music, the aforementioned are barely half of the classical offerings. Tops among other headliners include pianists Jan Lisiecki and Knauer, violist Lawrence Power, and the Atlanta Symphony under the direction of Robert Spano, presenting an all-Rachmaninov program with Stephen Hough playing the Piano Concerto No. 1.

All of these will struggle to eclipse the éclat of Hope, Crawford-Phillips, and the Quatuor Ébène in Chausson’s Concert in D. After three harsh opening chords from Crawford-Phillips, the quartet’s entry was happily ominous, still restless when the piano part suddenly became rhapsodic. Hope soared above this conflict, and while the quartet – individually and collectively – continued to make telling contributions, it was Hope and Crawford-Phillips, playing off each other, who built to a climax of resounding joy, ecstatic joy, yearning joy, fulfilled joy, and purely sweet joy. That was merely the epic Décidé, Animé movement, with three more to come.

In the splendor that followed, the Quatuor Ébène ran the gamut from orchestral might to mute passivity. These extremes were crystalized in the final Très animé. After some galvanic fireworks from the keyboard, the sliding ensemble work with looping crescendos and decrescendos made me think that Chausson could have easily added a extra o to his title, for here his Concert seemed to have the fullness of a piano concerto. Moments later, the quartet wasn’t playing at all during an extended episode that was a fiery Hope/Crawford-Phillips violin sonata. None of the Quatuor members bothered to hide their frank awe of the violinist standing before them.

Joining in after this violin sonata eruption, the quartet played with a richness that made me wish to hear them taking on Dvořák’s quartets. Then a pizzicato shower as Hope and Crawford-Phillips crested to peak intensity again. No, there was one more detonation from the keyboard – and yet another before the final satisfying chords.

Thrilling was almost an adequate description of the first Chausson Concert that I heard at Spoleto Festival in 2002 and two others that followed, most notably with Chee-Yun and Anne-Marie McDermott in 2009. With Quatuor Ébène behind them, Hope and Crawford-Phillips set the bar even higher.

Last night at “Beethoven and Beyond, Part II,” Hope and Crawford-Phillips came perilously close to topping themselves – with Keith Robinson playing cello – in Shostakovich’s harrowing Piano Concerto No. 2. Prior to the concert, Gibson revealed that the festival’s 2018 slate had been set. He divulged only two tantalizing bookings: Pinchas Zukerman is on the guest list, and (after taking over the reins of leadership from Sir Roger Norrington) Daniel Hope is bringing the Zurich Chamber Orchestra to Savannah.

Everything I’ve heard at Savannah Music Festival this year has been encouraging, especially the music. That’s why I’m filing this review early and making sure I don’t miss a note of Goodyear’s “Sonatathon.”

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