Serafim Smigelskiy, the cellist in the Tesla Quartet, playing alone in Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Photo by Benjamin Norman for The New York Times

Monday, March 25, 2019

Ludwig van Beethoven: String Quartet No.5 in A major, Op.18 No.5 – Quatuor Ébène (HD 1440p)

The French Quatuor Ébène string quartet plays Ludwig van Beethoven's String Quartet No.5 in A major, Op.18 No.5. Recorded at La Nef, le relais culturel de Wissembourg, on August 27, 2018.

Despite its numbering, this quartet was probably the fourth of the six that comprise Beethoven's Opus 18 set, dedicated to Prince Lobkowitz. The composer reordered the entire group upon its completion in 1800. The musicologist Brandenburg claimed that the chronological order of the six works was 3, 1, 2, 5, 4, and 6. Beethoven's rearranging was logical, based apparently on the character of the quartets. In general, the first three (in the final numbering) are fairly faithful to classical forms, while the second three tend to be unorthodox and somewhat experimental. In certain respects, the latter trio of quartets might be viewed as a significant part of the composer's transition to the methods and styles of his so-called middle period.

The String Quartet No.5's first movement, marked Allegro, opens with a theme that is more than vaguely Mozartean. But much of the music here is also reminiscent of parts of Beethoven's own Sonata for violin & piano No.2 in A major, Op.12 No.2 (1797-1798), written in the same key. The main theme is joyous and the mood optimistic, though the second subject contains material that is a bit more serious. The development section is noteworthy for what it mostly lacks – development. Only the latter half contains substantive development, but in a manner that looks backward in style, or, rather, aims toward the simple. The recapitulation includes some delightful changes in the material.

The second movement Menuetto features an attractive, lively dance theme whose simplicity is beguiling for its grace and subtle character. If the first movement stands as the least progressive panel in this work, then the trio of this Menuetto may be the most advanced. Yet, it too, is rather simple, and more than one commentator has heard in it a foreshadowing of the music of Schubert. Beethoven puts on display some interesting canonic writing when the main dance melody returns. The next movement is marked Andante cantabile, and its Mozartean character has often been noted. Mozart's Quartet in A, K.464, has been cited as the work Beethoven chose as a model, and the corresponding movements in that work divulge many similarities with the third and fourth movements here. Beethoven presents a simple slow theme and follows with five variations. As suggested above, the finale, too, is indebted to Mozart. Indeed, Beethoven borrows a theme, placing it near the end of the development section. But "imitation" would be too strong a word to use in describing the relationship between the two composers' music in the finale. In fact, the main themes clearly come from the pen of Beethoven, and the development section, muscular and anxious, is also easily recognized as his, despite the thematic foray into Mozart's world. This Allegro movement features a recapitulation and closes with an attractive coda.

A typical performance of the quartet lasts around a half hour.

Source: Robert Cummings (

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

♪ String Quartet No.5 in A major, Op.18 No.5 (1798-1800)

i. Allegro
ii. Menuetto – Trio
iii. Andante cantabile con variazioni
iv. Allegro

Quatuor Ébène:
Pierre Colombet, violin
Gabriel Le Magadure, violin
Marie Chilemme, viola
Raphaël Merlin, cello

La Nef, le relais culturel de Wissembourg, August 27, 2018

(HD 1440p)

"A string quartet that can easily morph into a jazz band", wrote the New York Times after a 2009 performance by the Quatuor Ébène. The ensemble opened with Debussy and Haydn and then improvised on a film music theme – with exactly the same enthusiasm and passion.

What began in 1999 as a distraction in the university's practice rooms for the four young French musicians has become a trademark of the Quatuor Ébène, and has generated lasting reverberations in the music scene. The four breathe new life into chamber music through their consistently direct, open-minded perspective on the works. Regardless of the genre, they approach the music with humility and respect. They change styles with gusto, and yet remain themselves: with all the passion that they experience for each piece, and which they bring to the stage and to their audiences directly and authentically.

There is no single word that describes their style: they've created their own. Their traditional repertoire does not suffer from their engagement with other genres; rather, their free association with diverse styles brings a productive excitement to their music. From the beginning, the complexity of their oeuvre has been greeted enthusiastically by audiences and critics.

After studies with the Quatuor Ysaÿe in Paris and with Gábor Takács, Eberhard Feltz and György Kurtág, the quartet had an unprecedented victory at the ARD Music Competition 2004. This marked the beginning of their rise, which has culminated in numerous prizes and awards. The Quatuor Ébène's concerts are marked by a special elan. With their charismatic playing, their fresh approach to tradition and their open engagement with new forms, the musicians have been successful in reaching a wide audience of young listeners; they communicate their knowledge in regular master classes at the Conservatoire Supérieur Paris.

The quartet was one of the award winners of the Borletti-Buitoni Trust in 2007 and received support from the BBT between 2007 and 2017. In 2005, the ensemble won the Belmont Prize of the Forberg-Schneider Foundation. Since then, the Foundation has worked closely with the musicians, who are performing on instruments chosen with and loaned by Gabriele Forberg-Schneider since 2009.

Pierre Colombet: Violin by Francesco Rugeri, Cremona (ca.1680), Bow by Charles Tourte (Paris, 19th century)

Gabriel Le Magadure: Violin with a Guarneri label (mid 18th century), Bow by Dominique Pecatte (ca.1845)

Marie Chilemme: Viola by Marcellus Hollmayr, Füssen (1625), prior possession of Mathieu Herzog

Raphaël Merlin: Violoncello by Andrea Guarneri, Cremona (1666-1680)

The Quatuor Ébène's CDs, featuring recordings of music by Haydn, Bartók, Debussy, Fauré, Mozart and the Mendelssohn siblings have won numerous awards, including the Gramophone Award, the ECHO Klassik, the BBC Music Magazine Award and the Midern Classic Award. Their 2010 album "Fiction" with jazz arrangements, has only solidified their unique position in the chamber music scene, as well as their 2014 crossover CD "Brazil", a collaboration with Stacey Kent, and their recent recording with Michel Portal, "Eternal Stories" (May 2017). In fall 2014, Erato released "A 90th Birthday Celebration", a live recording (on CD and DVD) of Menahem Presslers birthday celebration concert with the Quatour Ébène in Paris. In 2015-2016 the musicians focussed on the genre of the "Lied". They collaborated with Philippe Jaroussky for the CD "Green (Mélodies françaises)" which won the BBC Music Magazine Award 2016 and published a Schubert CD. On the one hand, it includes Lieder, recorded with Mathias Goerne (arranged for string quartett, baritone and bass by Raphël Merlin) and on the other hand, the string quintett, recorded with Gautier Capuçon.

The fundamental classical repertoire for string quartet will remain a cornerstone: this season, the Quatuor Ebène will focus on Ludwig van Beethoven's String Quartets. The quartet will indeed present the complete Beethoven cycle in 2020 for their 20th anniversary as well as for 250th jubilee of the composer.

From April 2019 through January 2020 the Quatuor Ebène will go on a world tour with the theme "Beethoven Live Around the World" with concerts in North America, South America, Africa, India, Australia & New Zealand, Asia and Europe. The Quartet will guest in concert halls including the Perelman Theater Philhadelphia, Sala São Paulo, Melbourne Recital Centre, and the Konzerthaus Vienna.


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