First published in The Herald on 7 July, 2014
It seems Quatuor EbÃ¨ne are an unflappable bunch. They arrived at the East Neuk Festival several hours late (having ended up at Aberdeen rather than Edinburgh airport â€“ one of those days) and walked on stage looking already knackered, yet proceeded to tackle some of the most challenging music in string quartet repertoire with dizzying technical command and breathtaking subtlety. To successfully scale two of Beethoven’s most sprawling and confounding late string quartets in one concert is a test of stamina on the best of nights; to do so after a day of missed flights and airport faff is a rare skill indeed.
Beethoven’s Opus 131 and Opus 132 are huge undertakings for a young quartet. There is no question that the EbÃ¨nes have a great deal to say about this music: their accounts were intensely felt and very original in places. These Frenchmen are masters of textural nuance â€“ what a vast and vivid palette they produce! â€“ and their ability to move around their instruments seems plain effortless. But nothing came across as off-the-cuff. Every shade of vibrato and intonation was applied with careful intent, and their delivery was never presumptuous or overblown. Crucially, they didn’t force any conclusions or impose any narratives. Instead they respected the fitful, difficult nature of these scores, from the earthy opening lines of Op. 131 to its brusque, brutish finale, from the opening brawn of Op. 132 to its heartbreakingly troubled close. My only quibble relates to their speedy pacing of the Heiliger Dankgesang: maybe on a more settled night they’d have let the chorales really expand. They recently recorded both pieces, so we’ll have a chance to find out.