Sunday, March 9, 2014

The string quartet goes pop (millennial edition)

Mathieu Herzog, Gabriel Le Magadure, Raphael Merlin, and Pierre Colombet. Photo: Julien Mignot
Once upon a time, there was a rumor that Ringo Starr had asked the other Beatles to re-name their little group "The Liverpool String Quartet, Plus Percussion."

Which speaks to the latent desire among many boomers for a truly pop string quartet - one that can simulate the rigor of the classic tradition while satisfying simpler, rock-derived appetites. Over the years, there have been a lot of attempts at straddling this divide (indeed, without the performers dedicated to this yearning, WGBH telethon programming couldn't exist). But few, so far, have actually met the challenge - at least from the classical side of the chasm.

But the millennials may be starting to crack the required code; dedicated as they are to "breaking down barriers" (but always drawing well within the lines of accepted pop parlance), and armed with formidable training and focus, it seems a natural endeavor for them. Quatuor Ebène, the rising French foursome who played Celebrity Series last weekend, is a leading entrant in this growing race (their chief competitors are probably the Modigliani Quartet, another French outfit that's perhaps even more photogenic - although the Ebènians are plenty cute, and plenty cool, as you can see from their attitude of soigné dishabille in the photo above).

What this somewhat-mysteriously-titled quatuor brings to the scene that's new is an appealing desire to yank pop closer to the classics (rather than the other way around).  And they succeeded to a surprising degree in the second half of their concert last Friday.  When they essayed the 'theme' from Pulp Fiction, for instance, they did manage to rescue, via Bartók-inflected voicing and a persuasively seductive tango, the original, fiery Greek folk tune (known as "Misirlou Twist") from the trashy surf stylings of Tarantino. Likewise Erroll Garner's "Misty" slowly (and sweetly) coalesced from melancholic gestures that were almost modernist in their dissonance. These efforts charmed and surprised, and the jazzier numbers were likewise persuasive; the quartet's nod to Miles Davis' "All Blues" struck me as slightly pale aside from the improvised solos, but Ástor Piazzolla's Libertango had a brassy swing; and curiously, their version of the Beatles' "Come Together" proved weirdly inspired. And when the boys raised their own voices - as a barbershop rather than a string quartet - in a fetching version of "Some Day My Prince Will Come" (in French, no less - "Un Jour Mon Prince Viendra"!) you just wanted to take them all home with you.

So they're adorable as well as cool. Still, these efforts leaned heavily on repeats of the material in a variety of modes (tango, waltz, you name it), and so amounted to so many (admittedly enjoyable) encores. But then the persistent problem with treating pop seriously is that it can't sustain long-form development; "breaking down barriers" just doesn't change that, whatever we may want to pretend. Is there a way to truly work up a pop song to classical levels?  Perhaps - and these talented musicians may be just the guys for the job. But then the "pop" would suddenly be complicated and difficult, wouldn't it; so no wonder nobody has pulled off that particular trick. It's perhaps telling that the Ebènians called their beguiling suite of pop standards "Fiction" - in a way I'm afraid that sobriquet was appropriate indeed.

So the meat of the concert was all in the first, classical half - specifically in Mozart's  Quartet No. 16 in E-flat Major (K. 428) and Bartók's Quartet No. 3 (Sz. 85).  How did Quatuor Ebène do there?

Well - not bad, although there was a certain attentive impersonality about the Mozart, which was dedicated to Haydn and bears his somewhat conservative musical stamp.  Still, after a rather indifferent reading of the first movement, the quartet drew out the plaintive lyricism of the Andante to poignant effect.  The minuet then danced fleetly, and violinists Pierre Colombet and Gabriel Le Magadure played against each other eloquently in the closing Allegro vivace.

The Bartók was better still. This time the quartet's sleekness had a propulsive intensity - which you need to put over No. 3, which despite its four-part structure is really one long building movement of anxious omens which is all but hurtling along before its desperate finish. This wasn't Bartók at its rawest - you certainly didn't feel the twentieth century reeling toward chaos as it progressed; but perhaps the Ebènians are simply too young to understand what's moving beneath this score - or perhaps their stance at the cusp of classical and pop prevents them from tapping into the deep madness conjured by music like this (the Who may have smashed their guitars, but Bartók smashes the world). Still, in musical terms the piece was superbly realized, and so gripping; certainly it was their best playing of the night, and made one long to hear more late nineteenth- or early twentieth-century repertoire from them.  Somehow "breaking down barriers" felt like a thin substitute for that.

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