Quatuor Ebène Plays Mozart & Beethoven – Tonhalle Zürich – June 11, 2017 – A Review

Quatuor Ebène

About a year ago I wrote about Quatuor Ebènes outstanding Schubert recording with Gautier Capuçon. For me, it was the album that should have won the Gramphone awards in 2016 in their category.

My first encounter with this young French quartet was even before that, with their excellent recordings of quartets by Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn.

They really are among the best string quartets out there in 2017, and this is not for a lack of competition.

So I was very pleased when I saw that they’d be coming to Zurich on a day where I’d be close by, yesterday, June 11, 2017

Tonhalle Zürich

A quick word about the Tonhalle Zürich. I’m actually not such a great fan of that venue (Luzern’s modern KKL is much nicer for my taste), but that said, both the big and small concert hall are have their end of 19th century luxury baroque style, and the 1930s incorporation of the old concert halls into the Zurich congress center is an interesting contrast of style.

Quatuor Ebene Tonhalle
Detail of Tonhalle Zürich Lobby

 

Between the two halls, I quite prefer the smaller one use for chamber music. I’ve had a number of fantastic concerts in here, including the great Quatuor Mosaiques with Haydn.

As a side note, the Tonhalle and the Kongresshaus will be renovated soon, and Zurich is currently preparing the Maag Music Hall in Zurich’s industrial “Kreis 5”, far away from the fancy shores of Lake Zurich, where the Tonhalle is a direct neighbor to the posh Hotel Baur Au Lac, to a completely different environment.

Maag Music Hall
Maag Music Hall back in January 2017

 

Quatuor Ebène at Tonhalle Zürich, June 11, 2017

But back to the good old Tonhalle.

Quatuor Ebène, dressed in black,  as the name (ebony) implies, started with Mozart.

Quatuor Ebène at Tonhalle Kleiner Saal Jun 11, 2017
Quatuor Ebène

But not with your Kleine Nachtmusik “Happy Mozart”, but with a romantic Sturm and Drang Mozart, the Mozart of Don Giovanni, sharing the same key, d-minor, somehow transporting Mozart directly into the 19th century. There is a lot of chiaroscuro, changing from shadows to the light in this work.

They have recorded this on their 2011 Mozart album, but this live interpretation went beyond what they recorded, there was an enormous passion in the room.

The move to Beethoven felt like a logical next step, with a very intimate connection to the Mozart.

They started with the latest of the “middle quartets”, op. 95, also known as Quartetto Serioso. Unlike some other nicknames like e.g. Moonshine, it appears that this name is genuinely by Beethoven.

It is not the most accessible of the middle quartets, it’s “seriousness” making it one of the most drastic works he’s ever written. This work mentally belongs much more to the late quartets.

Quatuor Ebene put all their energy into this and played as if their lives depended on it. The passion was tangible in the room.

After the break we returned to get the opus magnum of the evening. Just one number later in the list of Beethoven’s string quartets, no. 12 to be precise, op. 127. This work not only has the length of a symphony (and I’m talking Beethoven symphony), but also the power. Who would have thought that only 4 strings can fill a room with so much power?

But there wasn’t only power. The more than 16 minutes long Adagio was all subtleness, which transported the audience out of this world for the moment.

After the final movement, the Swiss audience simply didn’t want to stop clapping, clearly expecting an encore.

At the end, the four musicians came back out, without their instruments this time, explaining in a very friendly way that they felt that after such a work as op. 127, which they compared to the chamber equivalent of Beethoven’s Ode To Joy, there simply wasn’t any music they could play that wouldn’t be out of place.

I couldn’t have said it better.

What a concert. Magnificent

 

My Reflections on the 2016 Gramophone Awards (Part IV): Chamber

This is the 4th part of a series of posts about the nominated albums for the 2016 Gramophone Awards. You’ll find the rest of the series here.

Chamber Music

I’ve written quite a bit about chamber music on my blog already, it is one of the most beautiful and intimate forms of classical music.

Beethoven: Complete Works for Cello and Piano – Xavier Phillips – François-Frédéric Guy (Evidence 2015)

I’ve only recently “discovered” François-Frédéric Guy for me, in his album of the Brahms piano sonatas, reviewed here. As you can see from that review, I was really impressed with wh

Beethoven: Complete Works for Cello & Piano - Xavier Phillips - François-Frédéric Guy Evidence 2015

Xavier Phillips was another new name to me (which also tells me I’m not reading Gramophone with enough attention, given that all of these award-nominated albums obviously were previously praised by Gramophone).

The catalogue of complete Beethoven cello recordings has seen two recent excellent addition in recent years, with the excellent Steven Isserlis and Robert Levin on fortepiano (Gramophone Award finalist in 2014) on Hyperion, and even more recently Jean-Guihen Queyras and Alexander Melnikov.

So do we need yet another new recording? Well, while this new album doesn’t replace Isserlis and Queyras, it is certainly a strong contender.

As said before, I really liked Guy on Brahms, and his transparent, clear style works very well here. Phillips has a beautiful tone, and this recording, while very singing, has also a certain etheral style to it. Very much worth checking out.

My rating: 4 stars

Berg: Lyric Suite – Renée Fleming and Emerson Quartet

Berg/Schönberg/Webern: Belcea Quartet

Berg: Lyric Suite - Emerson String Quartet Decca 2015

Berg Webern Schönberg: Chamber Music Belcea Quartet

Berg twice, plus some more Zweite Wiener Schule.

As much as I love the Klimt on the cover, I’ve tried over and over again to get used to this kind of music, but haven’t managed. It’s just not my cup of tea. I can listen to Berg’s Violin concerto occasionally, but beyond that, the only thing I want is find my Ipad remote and turn back to Beethoven or Brahms as soon as I can.

Given my complete lack of competence and understanding here, I’ll just shut up and let you make up your own mind (you’ll find the Qobuz links below).

Brahms: String Quartets 1 & 3 – Artemins Quartet

Now we’re getting back to a composer I absolutely love (see also the subtitle of my blog).

That’s the good news.

Brahms: String Quartets No. 1 & 3 - Artemis Quartet Erato 2016

Now to the bad news: I personally think that Brahms’ String Quartets are among his weakest contributions to the genre of chamber music. I love everything he did with piano (naturally, he was a very good pianist), I like his string sextets and quintets already a bit less, and I never got to like the string quartets.

Honestly, when I want a string quartet, I’ll just pick between Schubert, Beethoven, Haydn, and occasionally Mozart. More than enough brilliant choice here.

But you don’t care about that, you care about what I think about their playing? Well, here’s the problem: If I don’t really like the music, my judgment is clouded at best. Sure, they do a fine job, but the entire thing just doesn’t touch me enough. So this will be another one where I refrain from any rating. Just so much: If you unlike me like the Brahms quartets, it’s worth checking out (which you probably would have guessed without me as well).

Bruckner: String Quartet, String Quintet – Fitzwilliam Quartet

You may, like me, rub your eyes and ask yourself if you just ended up in the wrong section. No this is not “orchestral”, we are in chamber music.

I must admit somewhere in the back of my head I had heard Bruckner did some Chamber music, but seriously had never heard it before. I could double check this fact, as my pretty large digital library doesn’t contain a single recording of these works.

Well at least I’m not alone, even the 30M+ library of Qobuz only features a very small handful of recordings of this work.

Bruckner: String Quintet - String Quartet - Fitzwilliam String Quartet - Linn Records 2016

Now the problem: The Fitzwilliam has recorded on Linn Records. While this usually means you get excellent recording quality, it also means no streaming.

Now, from the couple of other albums available for streaming of these works I must admit I haven’t made up my mind if I care enough about them to buy this new album (currently I rather don’t think so). Don’t get me wrong, I love Bruckner (see here), but I’m not sure his chamber music is for me.

So another album without any rating from my side. Sorry.

Schubert: String Quintet – Quatuor Ebène

Schubert String Quintet - Lieder - Quatuor Ebène - Gautier Capuçon - Matthias Goerne ERATO 2016

NOW we’re talking. Already reviewed here, and I can only reiterate my strong 5 star rating here. Just go, get it!

Tippett: String Quartets – Heath Quartet

Who? Could you repeat that name?

Well I shouldn’t brag, rather shut up, this just shows again how ignorant I am in 20th century music.

But as I’ve previously said about Britten, I love English composers. Especially when they are called Purcell. Or actually, only if they are called Purcell. For all the rest, really not my cup of coffee (or more appropriately, tea).

 

So, who should win?

Well, if you’ve read so far, you’ll have noticed that I’m rather biased this time (ok, all the time), and actually would give the Award without hesitation to the Quatuor Ebène.

Well, but I’m not Gramophone, and knowing the three finalists the jury there has chosen (they were released some days ago), I know they won’t make it. The Beethoven, my other favorite, is out as well.

Basically, the Emerson Berg, the Artemis Brahms, and the Heath Tippett are in the final selection.

Well, over and out for me at this stage. Let Gramophone’s jury do their job.

 

You can find the albums here:

Beethoven Cello Philips

Berg/Emerson

Belcea

Brahms Artemis

Bruckner

Schubert

Tippett

 

 

 

Quatuor Ebène & Gautier Capuçon play Schubert’s String Quintet – Can’t get enough of it

On my absence

2016 has been a very bad year for me posting-wise so far. Last year I was usually able to stick to my self-imposed posting schedule, of about 2 per week.

Since the beginning of the year this frequency has plummeted. Sorry for that. There is a couple of reasons involved, too much business travel, late nights at the office, some long week-ends / short vacation, and most recently, a nasty gastro-intestinal flu that isn’t fully over yet. Plus there’s been a bit of a writing block on the occasional days that I could have written.

Well anyhow, I really hope you should be able to read my posts more often in the future, fingers crossed.

Thanks in any case for your loyalty, my dear readers. Very much appreciated.

Schubert’s String Quintet

Yes, I’ve written about it before. Schubert’s string quartet, to me personally the highest peak that chamber music ever reached (sorry LvB fans).

I’ve already recommended the Pavel Haas Quartet’s version here, the Takacs also have done a beautiful version.

So there is obviously no need to talk about it again.

Quatuor Ebène

Well, actually there is. The reason is called Quatuor Ebène. This French quartet is noteworthy not only for being one of the leading classical string quartets of our time, but also do crossover, i.e. interpret Jazz and contemporary musical classically.

I must admit the term crossover usually makes me run away as fast as I can, as it is usually just horrible André Rieu / David Garrett / Vanessa Mae etc. trash (sorry, but I really can’t help it, that’s about the only word that expresses what I feel about this stuff).

But obviously to every rule there is an exception. Ebène is one of the few classical artists to really pull this off well!

Back to Schubert.

Schubert: Quintet & Lieder – Quatuor Ebène – Gautier Capuçon – Matthias Gerne (ERATO/WARNER 2016)

Schubert String Quintet - Lieder - Quatuor Ebène - Gautier Capuçon - Matthias Goerne  ERATO 2016

I would have checked out this album even without a “Choc” from Classica and an Editor’s Choice recommendation by Gramophone. But obviously, having the highest possible endorsement from both of my favorite classical magazines helped.

Let’s write about the Quatuor first. They are joined by Gautier Capuçon on 2nd cello. Gautier is the younger brother of the well-known violinist Renaud.

So what makes this recording so special? Two words spring to mind, rough and fresh. Rough isn’t meant that this is not high quality playing, far from that. But there is a real direct quality in the playing, that let’s you notice all the little angles and details than more polished recordings.

I’ve mentioned the energy that sets apart the Pavel Haas Quartet’s reading. You’ll find some of this here, but overall this is even more “chamberesque” (is this a word?) and intimate in this reading with Ebène.

This recording never just let’s you enjoy it, this album forces you to live the music.

The String quintet is already nearly 1h long, so many other artist would have just stopped there. Here however, you get an interesting bonus. Schubert is obviously famous for his Lieder (songs), and many of his chamber works are inspired by his songs (e.g. Death and the Maiden, see also here).

Usually, these songs have a piano arrangement. I must admit, I’ve never heard them with a string quartet supporting the singer. Well, here we go. And obviously, you don’t just get any kind of singer, you get Matthias Goerne, a Schubert legend. It is surprising how well this works. This is really way more than just a filler.

My rating: 5 stars – absolutely worth checking out, even if you already own the Haas or another reference version.

You can find it here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical)