MENDELSSOHN String Quartets – Ébène Quartet
This disc abounds in the kind of full-on playing and lively engagement with the music that we’ve come to expect from Quatuor Ebène, caught up-close and personal by the microphone. The two Felix Mendelssohn pieces, in their different ways among the most soulful and searing of any 19th-century quartets, are particularly well suited to the Ebène’s highly reactive approach. It was with these two quartets that the Elias came to the attention of many, and theirs remains a benchmark recording. In Op 13, the Elias have perhaps a greater sense of stillness, of awe, at the core of their interpretation, creating a reading of intense intimacy. But in places such as the finale – a triumphant mix of fantasy and driving energy – the Ebène make even more of the dangerously slaloming lines of the frenetic octave writing, while the first violin’s soliloquy leading up to the movement’s close, with its heartbreaking recollection of the opening of the piece, has a piercing clarity. The Mosaïques also remain compelling advocates, their slower approach to the third movement closer in concept to that of the Ebène, with both groups making much of the contrast with the faster-moving middle section.
The Elias and Ebène are equally captivating in Op 80, with the first movement really taking flight in the latter’s collective hands, the players imbuing it with a combination of fluidity and exuberance – and having sufficient confidence in one another to allow for joyous risk-taking.
It says a lot for Felix’s beloved sister Fanny that her quartet is not overwhelmed by its illustrious disc-mates, though it’s no doubt helped by an utterly committed performance – gleeful in the scherzo, poignant in the Romanze and ebullient in the outer movements. With every disc that the Ebène record, there’s the unmistakable sense that they have something to say and an urgent need to say it. Not everyone will respond to their approach, but to my mind they’re one of the most thrilling quartets around today, whether they’re reimagining Debussy, Mozart or the Mendelssohn siblings.