French interpreters of Brahms face a range of prejudices. Can
they do justice to the Classical rigour that underpins his Romanticism?
Are they sufficiently in touch with his oedipal relationship with
Beethoven? In the case of Quatuor Ébène the answer is ... yes
… just about. The players have no hang-ups about these issues.
They give these readings of the First String Quartet and the Piano
Quintet the ebb and flow the works need to breathe. The players
are all young, raising the prospect of another set of prejudices
about the automatic need for personal maturity when interpreting
works of this depth - a view that wilfully ignores the relatively
young age at which Brahms wrote them. Again, this has a bearing
on the interpretation. These performances have a certain face-value
quality - not so much pedantic loyalty to the indications in the
score as a sense of imposed correctness in the way that rubato
and dynamic deviations are applied.
performance of the First String Quartet (Op.51 No.1)
is admirable for its delicacy: the way that individual phrases
are sculpted, the precise balance in the contrapuntal development
sections. The recording acoustic is dry, and the microphones
are close, allowing the quietest textures to be reproduced
with a satisfyingly visceral sound of bow hair against string.
The stereo array of the recording is also impressively engineered.
The viola is clearly heard throughout, despite sharing the
right channel with the more robust cello.
argument could be made that there is not enough structural
thinking behind the interpretation, but we are not talking
about Bruckner symphonies here, and the focus on the moment
rarely seems inappropriate. The repeats in the score are all
faithfully observed, with changes of dynamic and timbre added
in each second iteration to give musical justification. The
ensemble is good, but it’s not faultless, and passages at
the dynamic extremes are usually the ones that suffer: stratospheric
pianissimo octave doublings between the violins, for example,
and fortissimo section climaxes. It’s not a big grumble, but
with this repertoire the competition is fierce.
Piano Quintet (Op.34) is given an appropriately epic
reading, by turns expansive, heroic, even symphonic. Pianist
Akiko Yamamoto matches the Ébène sound magnificently. Here
again the precision of the recorded sound pays dividends,
with Yamamoto’s touch at the quietest dynamics complementing
the strings, and all picked up in sensational detail. As for
the more dramatic passages, neither pianist nor quartet holds
back on the music’s extremes. The details of Brahms’ dynamics
pose a certain problem with regard to tastefulness; he often
gives very brief hairpins between extreme dynamics over the
course of a few notes. The quartet achieve an impressive feat
in honouring these directions and making the results sound
dramatic rather than histrionic.
are much recorded works, so it is to the credit of Quatuor
Ébène and Akiko Yamamoto that their interpretations are both
fresh and individual. They are unlikely to wrest the benchmark
status from recordings by more mature performers - the Takács
Quartet - or top name German groups - the Artemis Quartet
- but this is an elegant and accomplished recording, and deserves
to be appreciated for its own considerable merits.