Chamber Music New Zealand saved its best till last, signing off 2019 with Quatuor Ebene celebrating its own 20th birthday and Beethoven's upcoming 250th. Magnificently.
And a momentous occasion it was, with a film-maker and multiple cameras on stage, shooting footage for a documentary to be released after these musicians have taken the composer's 16 quartets around the globe. For two enchanted hours, we were part of the world.
Beethoven's Opus 18 reveals an ambitious young German firebrand daring to take on sophisticated Vienna. Violinist Pierre Colombet opened its G major quartet with effortlessly sweet lyricism, his colleagues maintaining almost conversational interchanges around him. This was music for eyes as well as ears.
Lightness, wit and echoes of Haydn ruled in the outer movements but the great melodic breaths of the Adagio cantabile showed a composer demanding almost orchestral sonorities —and, at this performance, getting them.
The Opus 95 quartet sets off with a terrifying roar. We shivered at its ferocity but relaxed in admiration at the cool precision of the ensuing chromaticism. This dramatic score, written in times of ever-increasing deafness, makes much of contrasts, all masterfully caught here, especially when a jagged scherzo melted into hushed translucence.
After interval, the Ebenes fully justified Beethoven's Opus 74 being nicknamed "The Harp." Those famous pizzicato passages floated through the hall in daring pianissimo, after the thrill of swirling outbursts.
The Adagio second movement was a study in exquisite phrasing, with a tonal blend that had the four musicians sounding as one. The unrelenting fury of a breakneck scherzo was complemented by a final set of variations, individually and stylishly characterised.
Cellist Raphael Merlin introduced the encore, intimating that it was our reward for choosing Beethoven over the All Blacks. Miles Davis' Milestones received the smooth update expected from this hip ensemble, with Merlin tributing Davis' original bass player, Paul Chambers, with energetic strolls up and down his fingerboard.
What: Quatuor Ebene
Where: Auckland Town Hall
Reviewer: William Dart