Ébèné Quartet

Pierre Colombet, violin
Gabriel Le Magadure, violin
Mathieu Herzog, viola
Raphaël Merlin, cello


Sunday, August 19, 2012, 4 pm


Divertimento in F Major, K.138 (1772)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
(Salzburg Symphony No. 3)


String Quartet in E Minor, Op. 121 (1924)
Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924)

Allegro moderato


String Quartet No. 1 in D major, Op. 11 (1871)
Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

Moderato e semplice
Andante cantabile
Allegro non tanto e con fuoco
Finale: Allegro giusto


next week

Two Pianos at the Maverick

Saturday, August 25, 6:30

Jazz at the Maverick
Bill Charlap and Renee Rosnes, pianos

Sunday, August 26, 4 pm

Frederic Chiu and Andrew Russo, pianos
Music of Debussy, Ravel, Gershwin, and Philip Glass




Program Notes © 2012 by Miriam Villchur Berg*


After its dramatic 2004 triumph at the ARD international competition in Munich, where the quartet was also awarded five additional special prizes, the Ébèné Quartet (Pierre Colombet, violin; Gabriel Le Magadure, violin; Mathieu Herzog, viola; and Raphaël Merlin, cello) went on to win the Forberg-Schneider Foundation’s Belmont Prize in 2005. It has since remained close to the foundation, which very generously arranged to have the quartet outfitted with several unique Italian instruments, on loan to the quartet members from private owners.

The Quatuor Ébèné has studied extensively with the Ysaÿe Quartet in Paris as well as with the eminent Gábor Takács, Eberhard Feltz, and György Kurtág. From “promising young ensemble,” the Quatuo rÉbèné has grown to become one of today’s foremost quartets on the international scene. Recently the foursome was specially selected to take part in the BBC’s “New Generation Artists” program, closely supported by the Borletti-Buitoni Foundation, which sponsored their first, critically acclaimed live recording of works by Haydn as well as a second CD of works of Bartók. There is, in French ensemble music today, a certain élan, which suits modern chamber music particularly well. This new generation of French musicians, their hearts full of passion for tradition, have been captivating audiences with great success, converting listeners into avid fans of the chamber music genre.

During the 2007-2008 season, the quartet was heard throughout Europe, Asia, and the US in major concert halls including Vienna’s Musikverein, Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, Berlin’s Philarmonic, and New York’s Carnegie Hall. In 2009 the Ébènés were also featured as part of Wigmore Hall’s Haydn Cycle in London.

The quartet’s Debussy, Ravel and Fauré recording was recently awarded “Recording of the Year” by the magazine Gramophone as well as “Chamber Music Record of the Year” by ECHO-classik. The Ébènés’ latest recording of works by Brahms, featuring pianist Akiko Yamamoto, demonstrates once again the quartet’s ease in a range of styles.

These four French musicians have class and are perhaps the most creative ensemble on the international chamber music scene today. No other quartet moves with such ease and enthusiasm between different styles.

The quartet’s traditional repertoire does not suffer in any way from its love of jazz. On the contrary, it would seem that the Ébènés’ tendency to delve into the “other side” of music inspires their work in untangling and giving new life to classical works. During its performance at the Hitzacker summer festival in 2009, for example, the quartet was heard playing a quartet by Haydn with such spontaneity, it gave the impression that this music, over two hundred years old, was somehow just composed.

A Jazz and World Music album, entitled Fiction, was released in the fall of 2010, nearly hit the top of the charts, and received an ECHO award. In 2011, Virgin Classics released a live DVD of Fiction, recorded at the Folies Bergères in Paris. For their latest release, the group returns to its focus on classical music with an all-Mozart CD. The Ébèné String Quartet has recently begun teaching at the Colburn Conservatory in Los Angeles.





Mozart wrote three pieces he called “Divertimenti” for string orchestra or string quartet (K 136, K 137, and K 138). They are commonly known as the Salzburg Symphonies, and it has been suggested that he meant to add wind parts to make them true symphonies. More likely, he wrote these three-movement works in the style of the Italian sinfonias, since they were composed during a time when he (age sixteen) and his father were traveling between Salzburg and Italy.

The violin has the lead in the sprightly opening Allegro of the Divertimento in F Major, K. 138. The cello serves as a basso continuo, outlining the chords of the harmony. It would be another year before Mozart discovered the string quartets of Joseph Haydn and learned (among other things) how to provide each instrument with a more independent line.

In the slow central movement (Andante), Mozart introduces more complex techniques. Beneath the flowing violin aria, the lower voices accompany in faster figurations, and the cello’s arpeggios begin to approach a melodic line. The movement is full of appoggiaturas—literally “leaning”—in which two dissonant notes are briefly juxtaposed, creating a tension that is relieved when one of the instruments moves to an adjacent note to create a consonant harmony.

In his later string quartets, Mozart would use the four-movement structure made standard by Haydn, adding a Minuet or Scherzo. The Divertimenti maintain a lighter structure with their simple, and very Italian, format of two fast outer movements with a slow movement in between them.

The finale (Presto) presents a lively theme played by the first violin. Varying episodes follow, from a minor legato song to playful staccatos. After each episode, the first theme recurs, making the form of this movement a rondo. This early work may not have all the nuances of Mozart’s later string quartets, but it already displays the enormous inventiveness of the young genius.

Gabriel Fauré was always a working musician—running the Conservatory, teaching, giving lessons, and playing organ at various churches. He was only able to find time to compose during the summer holidays. This in part explains why his list of works is heavily weighted towards songs, piano pieces, and chamber music rather than larger orchestral and stage works. Only after he retired from the Conservatory in 1920 could Fauré finally devote
himself—at seventy-five and in spite of deafness and frailty—entirely to composition.

In the last year of his life, Fauré finally decided to tackle the string quartet. From his composing retreat he wrote to his wife, “I’ve started a Quartet for strings, without piano. This is a genre which Beethoven in particular made famous, and causes all those who are not Beethoven to be terrified of it.”

The String Quartet in E Minor Op. 121 was the last piece he wrote, finished just two months before his death. The opening Allegro moderato uses dissonance and strange chords to provide the tension (just as Mozart’s appoggiaturas did more than a century earlier), which is periodically relieved by a return to more familiar harmonies. A dark timbre in a steady 2/2 meter is contrasted with constant movement—especially in the first violin—to create compelling forward motion and a sense of inevitability.

In the Andante, a modal form of A minor predominates, although the music rarely settles into a key. Fauré here abandons traditional structure and offers a rumination on small musical gestures, sequencing them up or down the scale to build a cohesive larger pattern.

The third movement (Allegro) serves as both scherzo and finale. Fauré wrote, “The quartet is completed, unless I decide to have a little fourth movement which might have a place between the first and the second. But since it is in no way a necessity I shall not tire myself by searching for it.” Pizzicato and staccato accompaniments contrast with legato thematic lines. Fugue-like imitations build in intensity, making the final homophony (all four instruments playing the same rhythm) compelling and dramatic.

Tchaikovsky was the first major Russian composer fully trained in Western European musical technique. The Russian nationalists, including the “Mighty Handful,” considered him a sellout because of his adherence to Classical form. European music critics thought his music was too Russian because of its folk tunes, ethnic-sounding melodies, and emotional expressiveness. Like Schubert, he was a melodist, famous for the lyricism of his melodies. The intelligentsia therefore scorned his works, since he did not always follow the Beethovenian tradition of thematic development through fragmentation and reformulation of motifs. Despite these criticisms, or perhaps partly because of them, audiences loved him, and he was accorded a degree of worldwide fame and fortune never before bestowed on a living composer.

The String Quartet No. 1 in D major, Op. 11 was written specifically for a concert to promote the composer’s work, and Tchaikovsky was showing his compositional capabilities. In the first movement (Moderato—semplice (simply)), all four instruments play the opening theme together—the simplest possible exposition. After this, the music expands in many directions, increasing in complexity and intensity, and occasionally returning to some form of the initial simple presentation.

The main theme of the slow movement (Andante cantabile) became instantly popular after its first performance, and has remained so up to this day. The tune came from a Russian folk song that he heard while visiting his sister in the Ukraine. Tchaikovsky was somewhat concerned by its popularity, since he wanted the public to admire his compositions, not the folk songs he borrowed. But he need not have worried, since it is his treatment of the tune that imbues it with its enduring charm.

In the Scherzo (Allegro non tanto e con fuoco—not too fast, with fire), syncopations and cross-accents add an exotic Russian feeling to the dance. The central Trio continues the syncopation, adding a melodious theme to the mix. The scherzo section is, as usual, reprised to end the movement.

The finale (Allegro giusto) is fairly lengthy, and has numerous sections. The first theme is bright and uses a dotted rhythm, while the second, introduced by the viola, is more lyrical. The music seems to reach a climax several times, only to start again with a new perspective. At the very end, the tempo takes off for the emphatic finish.

All program notes are copyright Miriam Villchur Berg. It is permissible to quote short excerpts for reviews. For permission to quote more extensive portions, or to copy,  publish, or make other use of these program notes, please contact her at miriam@hvc.rr.com Program Notes © 2012 by Miriam Villchur Berg