CARNEGIE HALL PRESENTS

Performance Sunday, March 18, 2012 | 7:30 PM

Ebène Quartet

Zankel Hall
While the group’s name means ebony, reflecting what violinist Gabriel Le Magadure calls “a love and respect for great African American jazz musicians,” the Ebène Quartet applies passionate intensity to all types of music. On this program, hear this stunning group perform jazz improvisations, but also music by Mozart and Beethoven.
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The Program

 

WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART
String Quartet in D Minor, K. 421


About the Composer


By the early 1780s, Mozart had completed his informal apprenticeship in string quartet writing under Joseph Haydn. If the elder composer had brought the Classical quartet genre to full maturity, the younger one invested it with unprecedented emotional depth and musical complexity. Nowhere are these qualities more apparent than in the six quartets composed between late 1782 and early 1785, known collectively as the “Haydn” Quartets. In dedicating the set to his esteemed mentor, Mozart reciprocated the magnanimous gesture Haydn had made several months earlier when he famously proclaimed to Wolfgang’s father that his son was “the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name. He has taste and, what is more, the most profound knowledge of composition.”


About the Work


Composed in June 1783, K. 421 is the second of the “Haydn” Quartets and the only one in a minor key. Yet the music bears few traces of the high tragic style that Mozart often associated with the minor mode. The character of the quartet is, on the whole, warmly lyrical rather than vividly dramatic. Only the two outer movements do much more than hint at the weightier passions, and even there the dominant mood is genial and relaxed. The luminous intensity of the D-Minor Quartet derives, instead, from the 27-year-old Mozart’s extraordinary economy of expression. The music seems to have been pared down to the bare essentials; even the sections in which Mozart elaborates and develops his themes are unusually compressed.


A Closer Listen


In the opening Allegro, the brooding D-minor theme—at first gentle, then assertive—soon gives way to a graceful countersubject in F major. Both melodies are introduced by the first violin, which clearly plays the leading role in the ensemble. But Mozart’s conception of the string quartet, like Haydn’s, was fundamentally egalitarian, and he apportions the thematic material among the four instruments in a democratic fashion. The inner voices, in particular, are full of interest and variety. After a concise, harmonically unsettling development, the original theme returns in darker guise, the climactic D-minor chord leading unexpectedly to a limpid, triple-time Andante in F major.

The third-movement Menuetto further explores contrasts of tonality, texture, mood, and rhythm. In the trio section, for example, Mozart neatly reverses the driving dotted-note figure heard in the upbeat to the principal theme, altering the pattern from long-short to short-long. The springy delicacy of this middle section accentuates the more propulsive character of the surrounding minuets. The concluding Allegretto ma non troppo is a set of four variations notable for their harmonic elasticity. A brisk coda reaffirms the home key and brings the quartet to an exhilarating close.

—Harry Haskell


 

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
String Quartet in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131


About the Composer


Beethoven’s 16 string quartets constitute a towering achievement that has inspired—and intimidated—composers ever since. Compared to Haydn’s 68 quartets and Mozart’s 27, Beethoven’s output was modest. Moreover, his production was sporadic, typically being prompted by commissions from aristocratic friends. But no matter who was paying the piper, he showed little inclination to let either his benefactors or the Viennese public call the tune. One contemporary described the six quartets of Op. 18 as “very difficult to perform and not at all popular.” The increasingly contrapuntal style of Beethoven’s middle-period quartets elicited similarly ambivalent reactions. Most challenging of all were the five late quartets (opp. 127, 130, 131, 132, and 135) to which Beethoven devoted himself almost exclusively between the summer of 1824 and the autumn of 1826. These knotty, inward-looking masterpieces stretch the formal and expressive language of the Classical string quartet almost to the breaking point.


About the Work


Beethoven composed his C-sharp–Minor Quartet in the first six months of 1826. It followed close on the heels of the Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 130, whose weighty finale the composer later split off and published separately as the Grosse Fuge, or Great Fugue. In a sense, Op. 131, with its majestic fugal introduction, begins where its predecessor left off. Beethoven is said to have regarded it as the greatest of all his quartets, yet in delivering the manuscript to his publisher, he deprecated the work as having been cobbled together “from pilferings from one thing and another.” The score is dedicated to Baron Joseph von Stutterheim, the commander of the military regiment in which Beethoven’s suicidal nephew Karl had recently found refuge.


A Closer Listen


The four-note motto that is heard at the beginning, migrating downward from one voice to another, bears a distinct family resemblance to the subject of the Grosse Fuge (a sequence of half-steps separated by wide leaps). This long-breathed fugue unfolds in one extended paragraph, its aching intensity accentuated by the unusual choice of key. (Beethoven had used C-sharp minor only once before, in the “Moonlight” Sonata.) After briefly coming to rest on a unison tonic, the players shift up a half-step, to D major, for the perky Allegro molto vivace in 6/8 time. Two emphatic chords herald the next section, which turns out to be little more than a prelude to the quartet’s centerpiece, marked Andante ma non troppo e molto cantabile.

Beethoven puts his genial A-major tune, with its characteristic off-beat pulse, through a series of dazzlingly ingenious variations. At times, indeed, the musical argument is so tightly packed that the theme disappears altogether, only to resurface at the end in the inner voices, beneath the first violin’s dancing trills. After a quiet cadence—the only full stop in the entire quartet—the music races off in a skittering Presto, brimful of humor and surprises. Another short bridge, this time a languorous Adagio in G-sharp minor, brings us back to the home key.
A terse, slashing up-and-down motif sets the pace for the concluding Allegro, which is characterized by sharp contrasts of mood and tonal register.

—Harry Haskell

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Reimagined Jazz and Pop Standards


Many people in the classical music world were taken by surprise in 2010, when the Ebène Quartet released a hit recording of world music and jazz titled Fiction. But such musical border-crossings were nothing new for this enterprising young French ensemble. As they explain in an album note, the foursome started playing jazz together as students at the Paris Conservatoire. “In the evening, while still in the classroom, we would have a go at a jazz standard or a chanson to give ourselves an excuse to improvise and above all to test the limits of the quartet form, which had already been taken to an advanced stage of development by classical composers. That’s how our arrangements came into being, nourished by the experience we’d gained in jazz, rock, and pop groups.”

In embracing the spontaneity of the jazz and pop idioms, the group was partaking of a centuries-old tradition. After all, improvisation was second nature to Mozart and Beethoven, as it was to most of the composers whose works form the core of the modern concert repertory. Bach improvised his fugues at the keyboard, just as Duke Ellington did with his jazz compositions. It’s not surprising that European classical musicians like Stravinsky and Ravel were captivated by their first encounters with African American jazz in the early 20th century. The influence cut both ways: The music of jazz artists like Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and Bill Evans is deeply infused with classical elements. So is Third Stream jazz, the cool neoclassicism of the Modern Jazz Quartet, the eclectic modernism of Anthony Braxton, and the classical-jazz fusion of Keith Jarrett.

But wait: Isn’t the combination of two violins, viola, and cello quintessentially classical? And doesn’t the string quartet genre represent the epitome of musical sophistication and refinement, from the aristocratic salons of Mozart’s Vienna to the rarefied precincts of the modern recital hall? In some ways, the classical string quartet is indeed a world apart from the traditional jazz combo of reeds, brass, piano, and percussion. But jazz has always connoted a way of making music as much as a distinctive sound and style. This helps explain why the boundary between it and classical music has been so permeable. The Quintette du Hot Club de France, an all-string ensemble that featured guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinist Stéphane Grappelli, was playing swing versions of Bach as long ago as the 1930s. At the same time, bandleader Artie Shaw was riding to fame on the strength of a “swing string ensemble” built around the nucleus of—you guessed it—a string quartet.

The granddaddy of classical crossover ensembles, the Turtle Island String Quartet, has been going strong since 1985. Turtle Island’s success spawned a host of followers, and the specter of four classically trained string players jamming pop and jazz standards on a concert stage is no longer a rarity. Just as contemporary jazz encompasses a spectrum of styles and techniques as dizzyingly diverse as that of classical music, so string quartets and jazz combos alike have broadened our musical horizons by striking out in new directions.

—Harry Haskell

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

This performance is part of Chamber Sessions II.

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