From Paris, with finesse and perfumed Bartók
LENOX — The Paris-based Ébène Quartet made its keenly anticipated Tanglewood debut on Thursday night in Ozawa Hall. This young ensemble’s first US tour took place only last year but the group has nonetheless generated both buzz and curiosity in classical music circles, the former thanks to its excellent recording of French chamber music, and the latter due to some of its more unusual party tricks, like capping traditional chamber music programs with jazz improvisation or even with its members singing as an a cappella vocal quartet.
No such fun and games were proffered at Tanglewood as the Ébène, perhaps concerned with making serious first impressions, stuck to core classical repertoire on Thursday, opening with a stylish and remarkably limber account of Mozart’s Divertimento (K. 136). From the outset, the group’s touch was notably light, its tone notably sweet. The outer movements were fired by a striking technical precision in both solo playing and in the ensemble work, but they also radiated a suavely exuberant musicality. Between them came a lovely, songful take on the Andante. It was, all told, some of the liveliest Mozart chamber playing I’ve heard all year.
The group’s thoughtfulness and fleet-footed virtuosity remained in evidence throughout the night, though the results on the rest of the program were more mixed. After the Mozart, the Ébène plunged into the darker tumultuous world of Bartók’s Quartet No. 1, and concluded with a noble attempt at the craggy peaks of Beethoven’s towering C-sharp minor Quartet (Op. 131).
The Bartók is a work that derives its mysterious power largely from the tension between its impressionistic elements and its more raw, rhythmically driving, Hungarian folk-infused energy. The Ébène, however, seemed drawn mostly to the first half of this equation, as the work here had a perfumed Debussian quality, full of arresting surface details, unblemished tone, and dazzling swirls of color. You could admire this elegant, sensual Bartók from a distance, but the music’s more visceral power and its expressive peaks never arrived with the explosive force that the best live readings can deliver.
The Beethoven also boasted some excellent pinpoint ensemble work, and an attention to subtleties of articulation that made certain passages sound remarkably fresh. There were some passing issues in phrasing and a slightly treble-heavy quality to the group’s sound, but I think what was ultimately missing was the sense of deep existential struggle that resides somewhere in this music, far beneath the surfaces the ensemble was so deft at polishing.
That’s not to say these players were not working extremely hard. The looks of exhaustion on their faces as they were recalled to the stage testified to that. So did their unfailing sense of finesse in what may be, in global terms, the most challenging string quartet in the literature. Even the Ébène’s partial successes enticed you to want to hear it again soon, and next time with a bit of the players’ own singing and improvisation included.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com.