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Artist Interview: Quatuor Ebène

By Erik Petersons on March 1, 2020

Quatuor Ebène embarked on their “Beethoven Around the World” tour last year—giving some 40 concerts across 18 countries on all six continents. In conjunction with their tour, they recorded the complete cycle at seven venues (including the Perelman Theater!). They return to Philadelphia next month for back-to-back concerts that feature one of the Op. 59 quartets just released as part of the project. We caught up with Raphaël Merlin, their founding cellist, to discuss Beethoven’s quartets, their recordings, and what lies ahead as they enter their third decade as a quartet.

Erik Petersons: Having performed and recorded the Beethoven string quartet cycle, how would you characterize the differences between the works from his early, middle, and late periods? How do these works reveal Beethoven’s development as a composer?

Raphaël Merlin: What distinguishes the different periods can roughly be said in a few words: The Op. 18 quartets carry the classical heritage of Haydn and Mozart. Op. 59, 74, and 95 are the explosive and experimental works, where every musical parameter is enlarged. This period announces the whole 19th century and the varieties of Romanticism to follow. Beethoven’s late period is so modern that it foreshadows the 20th century in many ways. In contrast to the quartet’s standard conditions, the cycle shows how quickly, deeply, and radically the creativity of Beethoven was evolving, probably even more due to his deafness.

EP: You recorded all the Beethoven quartets last year in different venues, including the Perelman Theater. Why did you pick that hall and what is it like to perform/record there?

RM: The Perelman has a nice and demanding acoustic—a quality standard which satisfies the recording conditions. Deciding where and how we would record the Beethoven cycle, we wanted to bring Beethoven’s music to each continent and to as many different social environments as possible. The goal was to confront his ideal of universalism in our contemporary world. Philadelphia is the best reflection of what America was at the time of Beethoven (early industrialization) and what it is today. We also feel great there and love the people who present this series!

EP: Marie Chilemme recently joined the quartet as its new violist. What strengths does she bring to the group?

RM: Marie is amazingly reactive and flexible, has a good mood and strong spirit, and maintains a critical and constructive ear. Her contact with the instrument allows the quartet to explore microscopic details and her devoted and willing personality reinforces the collective every day.

EP: This is your twentieth year as a quartet. How has the group evolved and what are some of your goals moving forward?

RM: These twenty years went by in a minute! We feel everything still needs to be done. There is always a mystery about what we can achieve, and it’s only on the field that you can know. Our projects include a Haydn/Janacek/Schumann program, and collaborations with the Belcea Quartet, Martin Fröst, and Antoine Tamestit. We will probably perform more contemporary music and maybe even produce a self-written/arranged (and even sung?) album. Everything is yet to be confirmed…we are still very busy with Ludwig.