quatuor ébène - friends of chamber music vancouver
Photo by Julien Mignot

Ébène Quartet – Season 66

August 17, 2016

Tuesday, March 4, 2014
Vancouver Playhouse 8:00 pm.

This concert is generously sponsored by Rogers Group Financial 

Pierre Colombet, violin

Gabriel Le Magadure, violin

Mathieu Herzog, viola

Raphaël Merlin, violoncello

Quatuor Ébène was founded in 1999 at the Boulogne-Billancourt Conservatory in France. They studied with the Ysaye Quartet in Paris as well as with Gábor Takács, Eberhard Feltz and György Kurtág. The group first came to international attention in 2004 when it won first prize in the string quartet category at the ARD International Music Competition, also taking the Audience Prize, two prizes for interpretation, and the Karl Klinger Foundation Prize. In 2005, they won the Belmont Prize from the Forberg-Schneider Foundation. The group is known for its versatility and performs a variety of genres, including classical music, contemporary music, jazz, and crossover.

Rather unusual in today’s world of chamber music, the Quatuor Ebène’s stylistic acrobatics may at first meet defiant ears. Yet, with the Ebènes, whenever they create a new work, it is always with taste and integrity, and their traditional repertoire does not suffer in any way from their love of Jazz. On the contrary, the Ebènes’ tendency to delve into the “other side” of music inspires their work in untangling and giving new life to classical pieces. And their contemporary French élan suits modern chamber music particularly well.

In 2006, Quatuor Ébène released its first recording, a live version of three Haydn quartets, to critical acclaim. In 2009, the quartet was named “Newcomer of the Year” by BBC Music Magazine for its recording of the Ravel, Fauré, and Debussy string quartets, which also won the group Recording of the Year at the 2009 Classic FM Gramophone Awards. In 2010, the group was named Ensemble of the Year at the Victoires de la Musique Classique. NPR named Ébène’s “Fiction” album one of its 50 favorite albums of 2011, describing the quartet’s performance as brimming with “silky smoothness and Gallic finesse.” The Ébène currently record for Virgin Classics. In 2011 they released a live DVD of “Fiction”, recorded at Folies Bergère in Paris. They have issued a CD of Mozart’s K421 and K465 quartets and Divertimento K13, and a box with the chamber music of Fauré, recorded with the quartet’s partners, both receiving an Echo Award in 2012. “Felix & Fanny” – featuring Felix Mendelssohn’s quartets Op. 13 and 80, and the only string quartet composed by his sister Fanny – was released in 2013.

The Èbène Quartet is represented by ARTS MANAGEMENT GROUP, INC., New York,


Quartet in F minor, Opus 20, No.5 Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)
Allegro moderato
Finale. Fuga a due soggetti

Haydn’s six Opus 20 quartets, written in 1772, are known as the “Sun” quartets for the trivial reason that a drawing of the rising sun was on the cover of the first edition. They are large, fully mature works that show Haydn as a master of the quartet form.

The String Quartet in f minor, Op. 20, No. 5 is among Haydn’s most intense quartets due to its dark and occasionally violent mood and its culmination in a severe fugue based on a terse, jagged subject. It was placed first in the ordering of the Op. 20 quartets in Haydn’s original handwritten catalogue of works.

The quartet opens with taut sonata form that has readily discernible components: a first theme in a minor key, a second theme in a major key, and a recapitulation that vividly recasts the second back into the dominating minor. Haydn adds even greater clarity and impact to his dramatic transitions through calculated use of silences. The recapitulation differs significantly from the exposition by showing additional development. In the coda Haydn intensifies the grave conclusion with a daring series of key changes that prepare the hushed ending.

The Menuetto, a little sonata itself, maintains the stern face of F minor until its trio brings relief with the parallel key of F major. Here the smooth melodic contours and a noticeable lightening of texture recall the traditional origin of the word “trio”: a trio of soloists in contrast to the full orchestra. Haydn uses silence, this time for a light-hearted effect that highlights the final six bars of luscious texture, a final flourish before returning to the somber minuet.

The Adagio is a wonder of refreshing charm featuring new textures, an exquisite aria for the first violin, a little canon for violin duo and a set of delightful variations. The movement is a siciliano, a moderately paced graceful Italian dance with dotted rhythms in a 6/8 meter and the mood of a pastorale.

The finale is a fugue – a technique of strict contrapuntal imitation that dates back to the mid-15th century. Culminating in the music of Bach, it subsequently fell out of favor with the new style of simplified expression that characterized the pre-Classical era. Haydn’s re-introduction of fugue added new intellectual, textural and dramatic dimensions to the music, which, along with and within the sophisticated development of sonata form defined the new era of Classical music. Within the context of chamber music, the contrapuntal demands of fugue immediately renders all players equal as the music becomes not a melody with accompaniment, but a simultaneous progression of four independent melodies.

String Quartet No. 3, Sz 85 Béla Bartók (1881-1945)
Prima Parte: Moderato
Seconda Parte: Allegro
Recapitulazione della prima parte: Moderato
Coda: Allegro molto

Bartók’s study of Magyar folk music, which he began in 1905, was an important part of his life. He collected and prepared for publication literally thousands of examples of this music, the essence of which seeped into his soul and became such an integral part of his composition that it is impossible to distinguish the authentic folk tunes from his own original material. Bartók put the best of himself into his six string quartets, which many musicologists now rank as the greatest contribution to this genre since Beethoven. Bartók wrote “The melodic world of my string quartets does not essentially differ from that of folk music, only the framework is stricter. I do not bring back one single part in exactly the same way”. This practice is directly linked to Bartók’s concept of continuous thematic variation. Another concept that Bartók adopted was affektenlehre, the idea that each piece or movement should portray a single emotional state.

Bartók composed the third quartet in Budapest in September 1927, and the Waldbauer Quartet in London gave the premiere on February 19, 1929. One of the most complex of his works, it is a short piece in which the expressive content seems to be so densely compressed that it is almost at the point of explosion. All signs of late romantic lyricism and subjective “expressivo” writing are totally eliminated. Its formal layout is unusual, consisting of one continuous extensive movement that is divided into four sections.

In the opening Moderato Bartók develops virtually a whole movement from a single germ cell, made up of a rising interval (a fourth) and a smaller descending interval (a minor third). Bartók subjects this brief motto to continuous development including an episode of “night music” that evokes the mysterious rustling sounds of a desolate forest.

The second part Allegro yields to our understanding more easily. The principal theme is a simple rising and falling scale line, first played pizzicato by the cello. With relentless driving rhythms, percussive chords, syncopations and glissandi, it clearly springs from native dances.

The third section Moderato begins with thematic elements of the first section, which are varied and combined in a new fashion. The recapitulation takes on a tender character, not without a certain sadness.

In the Coda, all the thematic elements of the second section reappear. The pace is increased, the basic meter changes from 2/4 to 3/8, and the contrapuntal texture becomes denser. Towards the end, the music grows more complex and intricate until the quartet comes to a harsh conclusion.


String Quartet in A minor, Opus 13 (1827) Felix Mendelssohn(1809-1847)
Adagio: Allegro vivace
Adagio non lento
Intermezzo: Allegretto con moto – Allegro di molto

Mendelssohn drew part of his inspiration for this string quartet from Beethoven’s last quartets and from the love poem, “Ist es Wahr?” (Is it true?), written by his friend Johann Gustav Droyson. In the spring of 1827, when Mendelssohn fell in love, he set this poem to music. The opening three-note phrase of the song, published as his Opus 9, No. 1, became the germinal melody that permeates the entire quartet. The quartet, a brilliantly executed, passionate and poignant work, was completed in October 1827.

The first movement starts with a slow introduction followed by the three-note motto, “Ist es Wahr?” endowed with great pain and yearning. The motto is presented by the viola and imitated by the other instruments. Then the mood lightens as the first violin plays a distinctive rhythmic figure. A reprise of the fugato is heard before a brief violin cadenza leads to a reprise of the opening. In the following Allegro vivace, the viola presents the principal theme, which is also based on the motto. This is expanded before the cello, playing high in its register, launches into an impassioned second theme that reaches a climactic ending.

The Adagio non lento is highly emotional. It opens with a very loose paraphrase of the original song, which is followed by a somber fugato introduced by the viola.

The Intermezzo offers a welcome relief from the emotionally charged atmosphere of the Adagio. The first violin plays a folk-like theme set against a simple pizzicato accompaniment from the other instruments. A faster, whispered middle section recalls the delicate fleeting scherzi of Mendelssohn’s Octet and Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture. This is followed by a repeat of the opening section, after which both musical ideas are combined in a final coda.

The vigorous Presto opens dramatically with a recitative reminiscent of the final movement of Beethoven’s Opus 132 quartet. The three lower instruments play tremolo while the first violin plays an agitated passage based on the fugato theme of the second movement. A multitude of motifs follow, many of which are related to the material of the previous movements. At the end, Mendelssohn recalls the introduction to the quartet and follows it with a melody similar to the original “Ist es Wahr?” song setting, thus bringing the music full circle.