New Classical Tracks: Quatuor Ebene

by Julie Amacher
February 6, 2013

Listen New Classical Tracks: Quatuor Ebene
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Quatuor Ebene - Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn (Virgin 464546) (Courtesy of Virgin Classics)

Free Download: The Ebene Quartet - String Quartet in E flat Major: II. Allegretto

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The Ebene Quartet features four talented French string players who aren't afraid to stretch beyond the boundaries of classical music. According to cellist Raphael Merlin, each member leads a double life, "that was kind of funny to discover when we met that, for example, Pierre the first violinist did play in a rock band in high school with friends of his. He was the drum player in the group. Mathieu, the violist, did sing and play guitar in a funk group, I was a jazz pianist, and Gabriel who did play more in the folk and eventually electro-field, had some connections in that area. So all of us were classical musicians but with a connection to let's say more popular music, maybe."

Their broad musical interests and the fact that their instruments are made of ebony wood also helped to define the name of this quartet. "But I mean the most important thing is maybe that through this wood which resists very well to the time, you have the symbol of exotic cultures and eventually the Afro-American jazz musicians, which we admire and love a lot which maybe, yes, it symbolizes our attraction to the crossover thing, let's say, but especially the world music and the jazz, yes. It was a very practical name which allows us not to be only a classical quartet and not to be under the influence of an influential artist whom we would have taken the name from."

On their fifth recording, The Ebene Quartet introduces you to the many facets of Felix Mendelssohn through his early string quartet, No. 2, Op. 13; his last string quartet, No. 6, Op. 80 (a requiem for his sister Fanny following her death); and the only string quartet composed by Fanny Mendelssohn. "The reason these three pieces were a good combination for us, we thought even in the same family, there is really three different faces to show with absolutely using the same style of writing music but bringing very opposite sensitivity and emotional field of human being, it's maybe, the smartest and more elegant realization in music of romantic romanticism, in a very pure way."

Mendelssohn's Quartet No. 2 in a minor, Opus 13 was written in direct response to one of Beethoven's last quartets, also written in the key of A minor. For their performance The Ebene Quartet does something they've never done before. They had their first and second violinists switch places. While first violinist Pierre Colombet takes the lead on Mendelssohn's later f minor quartet, second violinist Gabriel Le Magadure leads the ensemble through this gentle earlier piece, "And we felt maybe this is the occasion to give the first violin seat to Gabriel because that will help the listener on the same CD to perceive two absolute different sides of the composer, at the very beginning and at the very end of his life. So we were very proud of the two violinists, each one of them did a great job. And I think it may have been even more difficult, for Pierre, for the first time to be a second violinist, because this is something which requires a lot of observation and reactivity."

As you listen to the Ebene Quartet play these three Mendelssohn string quartets, Raphael Merlin says you'll hear deep expression and some improvisation from their double life as jazz, folk and rock musicians, "There is something we all agree on, that Mendelssohn is typically the composer who doesn't require any reserve, any tempo keeping. These fluent lines have to sound free and like they're taken by the wind or surfing on a wave... there is not any necessity for regularization. It's just really lively music.

We are just a string quartet who chooses at the very beginning of its activity to also explore a bit and to do our own arrangements, to write music for ourselves and therefore to include some improvisations on the stage when we do these jazz concerts. And improvisation is always something which has some influence on our playing of the classical repertoire."