The Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, winding down its current season, has saved some of its best for last. The Ébène Quartet, beginning a year-long worldwide tour, plans to record all of Beethoven’s quartets in live performances on six continents, a project to my knowledge never attempted before. The point, as the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birthday approaches, is to bring the most universal of all musical figures to most global of audiences. Its Philadelphia performance, at the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater, was among those being recorded, with sound equipment towering above the performance space. The works presented included Beethoven’s first published quartet, the Op. 18, No. 1 in F Major, and the Fourteenth in C-Sharp Minor, Op. 131, regarded by many as the summit of his achievement.
With tempos a bit on the slower side (though never lagging, and with plenty of snap when called for), the two Beethoven quartets alone might have made an evening for most groups. But the Ébène, Paris-born and based, added Gabriel Fauré’s only string quartet and final composition, the E-Minor, Op. 121, both as a contrast to Beethoven and a tribute to French musical genius. The contrast could hardly have been greater, and yet the program made, in the hands of the Ébène, a unified whole.
Beethoven’ Op. 18, No. 1 was one of six quartets that, together with his First Symphony, marked his full emergence as the successor to Mozart and the still-active Haydn. The unison theme that opens its Allegro con brio shows the brusque assertiveness that belonged to him alone, and the following Adagio is, startlingly, in a new idiom that, distinguishing itself from the pathos that the Classical style had achieved in Mozart, would over the next generation acquire its name: Romanticism. The Ébène captured without forcing the novelty of the music, and altogether realized the note of authority in Beethoven’s emerging maturity that only the First Piano Concerto had hitherto fully demonstrated.
The deafness that would plunge Beethoven’s life and art into crisis had not yet emerged at this point, but Gabriel Fauré suffered from it as well late in life, and his ear too was an inner one when he undertook his Quartet. The early Fauré had owed much to the music of Camille Saint-Saens, with its very Gallic clarity, but unlike Saint-Saens, who predeceased Fauré by only three years, Fauré had passed through the Impressionism of Debussy into a realm of his own at the end of his life, with deliquescent, overlapping lines of sound and gossamer textures that transcended conventional thematic structure and require the utmost refinement and sensitivity to convey. Although the concluding Allegro picks up tempo and definition, particularly through pizzicato accents, the overall impression of the work is of one with a foot in another world—not so much beyond as within this one. This is music that demands the three-dimensional space and sound of live performance, and the Ébène, its four instruments interweaving yet playing as one, accomplished what only art of the highest order can: it made ethereality manifest.
The return to Beethoven after the Fauré cast a light of its own on what is in many respects his most challenging and experimental work for multiple instruments. In its own time, the C-Sharp Minor Quartet puzzled contemporaries, the contrast of moods in its seven movements belying the subtle tonal design that only subsequent musicological analysis would explicate. Certainly nothing, even in Beethoven, could have prepared the listener for its opening fugue in Adagio tempo—and who but Beethoven could even have conceived of a fugue not only deliberate but actually slow? The five middle movements that follow are each a contrasting sonic world, until the final Allegro bursts through with a sense of violent Fate that brings the work to perhaps the most terrifying conclusion in all music. The Ébène took a long, dramatic pause before embarking on it, as if to say, even nearly two centuries after the C-Sharp Minor’s premiere, You ain’t heard nothin’ yet.
It is hard to argue the point.
The Ébène Quartet in recital, at the Kimmel Center, May 6, 2019. Ludwig Van Beethoven, String Quartet in F Major, Op. 18, No. 1; Gabriel Fauré, String Quartet in E Minor, Op. 121; Ludwig Van Beethoven, String Quartet in C-Sharp Minor, Op. 131.