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Music review: Ebène Quartet opens Sundays with Coleman

October 3, 2011 |  4:34 pm

Ebene Quartet
The exceptional Ebène Quartet finally reached Southern California on a hot Sunday afternoon in Pasadena. It opened a new season of Sundays with Coleman at Caltech’s Auditorium -- the 108th season of the Coleman Chamber Music Concerts.

A series that began before Hollywood started making movies has obviously seen -- and made -- a lot of history over the years. The four dashing young Frenchmen (tight suits, black shirts, open collar) in the Ebène look as though their combined ages add up to not much more than 108. Their Pasadena debut, though, is one more Coleman milestone.

The Ebène (Ebony) has the Brits to thank for its exceptionally quick ascent into the top rank of string quartets. It was formed by Conservatoire students hanging out in Parisian cafes and jazz clubs. In 2006, the BBC recognized the ensemble as one of its “New Generation Artists.” In 2009, the Ebène made its first recording for the British label, Virgin Classics –- a disc of Debussy, Ravel and Fauré quartets. The suave, beguiling performances proved irresistible, winning Gramophone Magazine’s “Record of the Year,” an extraordinary achievement for so green a group and such evergreen repertory.

What singularizes the Ebène is, in order of importance, its technical excellence, its Frenchness, its fresh musical personality (a subset of its Frenchness), its sense of style (another such subset), its dynamism and its split-personality (maybe yet another aspect of its Frenchness).

The program Sunday was traditional. Too traditional, in fact, with Mozart’s “Dissonance” Quartet, and the second strings quartets of Borodin and Brahms. A concert at Caltech attracts a crowd with no small amount of brainpower. Coleman listeners can meet a challenge. Just before the Borodin began, a woman in the audience loudly complained that there wasn’t anything modern being played.

An encore, “Misirlou,” arranged from the soundtrack of “Pulp Fiction,” is the other side of Ebène, otherwise absent at Beckman, but found in full regalia on the group’s “Fiction” CD and DVD of pop and jazz material, some of it precious. But Ebène-lite keeps the ensemble nimble, and its classical playing, while without exaggeration, is not without substantial pizazz.

The Ebène’s latest CD is all-Mozart, and it is, as was Sunday’s “Dissonance,” exquisite. The players (violinists Pierre Colombet and Gabriel Le Magadure, violist Mathieu Herzog and cellist Raphaël Merlin) play with true intonation and an uncanny sense of balance. The “dissonance” of Mozart’s late C-Major Quartet, K. 465, is in the chromaticism of the introduction, which the Ebène handled with an ideal combination of charm and harmonic frisson. The best French Mozart is a model of refinement, beauty and a charm that can border on sexual allure.

That’s even more true of French Brahms. There is a reason why “Aimez-vous Brahms...,” teenage Françoise Sagan's bestselling 1959 French novel about a sophisticated middle-aged woman and her young lover, was published in English translation with its French title. “Do You Love Brahms” hardly would have suited, say, the suggestive cover of the 1961 Bantam paperback.

I’m afraid that not too many teenagers bust bodices on Brahms these days, but maybe the Ebène can change that a little. The Second Quartet in A Minor certainly does heave and swell in lyrically complex ways. A throbbing pulse is often broken up by rhythmic cross purposes of the individual parts. Honey-coated melodies are so thick that they don’t coalesce into straightforward phrases. Desire resolves into agitation or doesn’t resolve at all.

The Ebène hid nothing. The quartet’s clean sound is founded on transparency of texture. Four men Sunday played Brahms as one. The phrasing was flexible but subtle. Nothing was overstated. No measure lacked beauty. But there was a dramatic fire, striking in the percussive attacks and build of momentum.

Borodin’s Second Quartet has tunes everyone can hum. The third movement found its way onto Broadway in “Kismet.” The Ebène enjoyed itself, bringing life to a Russian relic. But tasteful, tactful, occasionally scintillating Borodin was, in the context of a traditional program, a party trick, like “Pulp Fiction” for string quartet.

Still, the Ebène is a quartet to catch sooner rather than later. And you can. The Frenchmen remain strangers no longer. They will be at the Colburn School on Sunday and at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts on March 3.

RELATED:

Wayne Shorter, Miles Davis meet Ebène: When string quartets rock

A fine weekend for chamber music

Music review: Juilliard String Quartet at Beckman Auditorium, Caltech

-- Mark Swed

Photo: The Ebène Quartet at Beckman Auditorium, Caltech, on Sunday. Credit: Gina Ferazi/Los Angeles Times.

 


 
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