|A budding classical quartet with a taste for pop.|
It was kids’ night out at this month’s Cleveland Chamber Music Society concert, with a boisterous student contingent whooping it up for the not much older Quatuor Ébène. The French quartet may not have been the most impressive ensemble in CCMS’s stellar lineup this season, but give them credit for bringing the most innovative program: Mozart, Mendelssohn and Jazz.
Founded in 1999, the quartet comes with solid classical credentials. They trained at the Conservatoire de Boulogne-Billancourt, studied with the Ysaÿe Quartet in Paris, racked up several awards and ventured beyond the French repertoire with recordings of Mozart, Haydn, Brahms, Mendelssohn and Bartók. Yet it’s their crossover work that has drawn the most attention, and support. Guests on their 2011 release Fiction, covers of pop hits and film tracks, include Natalie Dessay, Fanny Ardant and Stacey Kent.
In performance the group has a dry, compact sound that favors the high end. It can be thin at times, like young wine – a clean finish, but not much body. Their playing is tight, though not always with the organic quality that characterizes the best quartet work. And their tempos have a disconcerting tendency to slow down or speed up, the latter sometimes robbing the music of depth and emotional impact. In short, a promising vintage that needs time to mature.
Mozart’s String quartet in C major (K465) showcased the group’s fine technical skills, especially in the quick turns of the third and fourth movements. Once past the famous “dissonant” opening, which they handled with solemn delicacy, the foursome gave the piece a lighthearted, even playful quality, with notable expression in the second movement. Otherwise, the music never developed much depth, zipping along a polished but thin surface.
The group seemed more comfortable with Mendelssohn’s String quartet No. 6 in F minor (Op. 80), opening with a blaze of energy that highlighted the light and dark tones of the first movement. There were some flashes of color and drama in the second movement, but it was played too fast to sustain any dramatic tension. The sound finally opened up in the final two movements, played with a passionate intensity led by first violinist Pierre Colombet.
The program after intermission was an amalgam of jazz and pop hits that blithely crossed decades and genres, with the only common denominator being songs that the group likes. These ranged from Erroll Garner’s “Misty” to the Beatles’ “Come Together,” spiced by unpredictable selections from movies as disparate as “Pulp Fiction” and “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.” All were played in original arrangements, which were uniformly good; on paper, the group has great musical flair. In performance, some of the songs work, and some don’t.
The quartet did a fine job of capturing the sonorities of Miles Davis’ “All Blues,” but could manage only a wan version of Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints.” And they would do better to avoid the Beatles altogether. Percussive touches lit up Dick Dale’s “Misirlou” (from “Pulp Fiction”), as well as a closing Piazzolla tango. The group returned for an encore of “Someday My Prince Will Come” that featured a cappella breaks with surprisingly good four-part harmonies. The ensemble’s vocals, in fact, were better than some of their instrumental work in the second half.
Is it possible to play both classical and popular music very well? Others have tried, with equally spotty results. One of the jazz pieces Quatuor Ébène covered was Brad Mehldau’s “Unrequited,” which brought to mind a fall 2010 tour Mehldau did with Anne Sofie von Otter, the brilliant Swedish mezzo-soprano. Mehldau is a gifted pianist, but when he soloed on two Brahms caprices, he sounded like what he was – a jazz player not quite making a successful crossover to classical. And von Otter’s classical approach and phrasing were a poor fit with Joni Mitchell and the Beatles.
Still, the experimentation offered a refreshing break from standard classical fare. And to judge by the audience, Quatuor Ébène attracts a younger generation of fans that most chamber ensembles can only wish for.
For more on Quatuor Ébène: http://www.quatuorebene.com/
For more on the Brad Mehldau/Anne Sophie van Otter tour: http://pragueculture.blogspot.com/2010_10_01_archive.html