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Ébène String Quartet Shines at Massry Center for the Arts

Ébène String Quartet Shines playing Mozart, Bartók, and Grieg at Massry Center for the Arts

Capital Region Classical, 52nd Season

Albany, New York

 April 4, 2024


The Ébène String Quartet


Pierre Colombet, violin

Gabriel La Magadure, violin

Marie Chilemme, viola

Yuya Okamoto, cello


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Quartet in D Major, K. 575 (1789)


Béla Bartók

Quartet No. 3. Sz. 85 (1927)


Edvard Grieg

Quartet in G Minor Op. 27 (1877-78)


The Ébène String Quartet
The Ébène String Quartet: Yuya Okamoto, cello; Gabriel Le Magadure, violin; Marie Chilemme, viola; Pierre Colombet, violin; Photograph Julien Mignot


The Ébène Quartet, formed about twenty years ago, has risen to the top of French quartet ensembles sporting an eclectic repertoire: not only classical, but pop, rock, and jazz.  For my taste, their Beethoven, along with those performed by the Belcea Quartet, has set a new standard in the contemporary string quartet scene. We are truly fortunate that Capital Region Classical has gifted us with such paramount ensembles. We’ll be hearing both ensembles next November performing the Mendelssohn and Enescu Octets, a concert I will surely not miss.


Just this February, cellist Yuya Okamoto succeeded Ébène’s founding cellist Raphaël Merlin, and all seems to be going very well. Losing and gaining a new member is a serious matter for any mature ensemble.  Having something on the program to “welcome” the new cellist (Okamoto is a fantastic virtuoso) seemed very much in order. The first part of tonight’s program underscored cello and first violin as partners throughout the work.  Mozart’s Quartet in D major ("Prussian"), K 575 (1789) gives the cello prominence, as it was dedicated to Friedrich Wilhelm II, a fine cellist in his own right.  This quartet anticipates the graceful melancholy of K 595, Mozart’s last piano concerto, written two years later.  Indeed, there are melodic and structural similarities, not the least of which is the overall Baumschatten that canopies the works.  In the Prussian Quartet, the cello is handed high, vibrant tessituras leading or following key melodic entrances of the first violin.  By doing so, and switching to low bass tessituras, the cello assumes the role of two instruments.  This quartet does not boast the technical or compositional intricacies of those quartets Mozart dedicated to Haydn, but the composer laces the simplest material with chromatic melodic sighs that make this work one of his most affecting works.  Okamoto and Pierre Colombet, the first violinist, certainly highlighted this duet-like quality of much of the writing. Utilizing the cello’s wide range nicely filled out the somewhat sparse writing to give a fuller, more luscious sonority.


The classical poise and symmetry supremely conveyed in the opening piece of the concert was subversively undone with both the Bartók and the Grieg quartets.  Earlier this season, I found the Belcea’s performance of the First Quartet of Bartók superb in conveying the narrative subtext.  Here, with Bartók’s more ambitious piece, the palette of extended string techniques was thoroughly exploited: glissandi, harmonics, sul ponticello, and col legno. Never used for mere artifice, these indulgences were firmly integrated in the unfolding narrative.  The Third Quartet is the composer’s shortest one (barely fifteen minutes); the four brief movements contrast and compliment in one continuous flow. The opening string statement is imitative against a dissonant drone producing a magical overtone.  An undulating ostinato in the lower strings highlights more animation above until angry triple and quadruple stops seem to abort the sense of order.  The second movement, following without pause, is a contrasting animated section. Along with percussive pizzicatos, folk motifs combine, percolate, and ultimately come to a vehement accord. The third movement attempts to return the first movement’s decorum, but the resolution in the final movement is a tangle of polytonal swarms and swells.  As lovely and gracious was the Mozart, the Bartók fulminates conflict.


The Grieg Quartet in G minor, Op. 27 is an explosion of tonal exuberance.  One senses that Grieg wanted to fuse all late romantic musical pleasures into a single resounding work. To experience the gusto, playful legerdemain, full-throttled yawps, and gracious sentimentality carried me beyond the Massry Center throughout the week.  Grieg chose one of his folk-like songs, Spillemænd ("Minstrels"), to be the cyclic motif permeating each movement at varying degrees. The movements are in classical form with generous reflections of Brahms, Borodin, Dvořák, Franck, and Norwegian Gudbrandsdalen folk elements.  Grieg does not hesitate to use lots of double, triple, and quadruple stops all around, producing an opacity of string density.  The final dance, a wild saltarello is a knock-out, even foreshadowing Bartók-like percussive unison chunks. There were clever false endings here, but when it did finally stop, the audience gave the Ébène a rousing ovation, readying them for their Carnegie Hall appearance the following evening.


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