It was organist, impresario, and music historian Hubert Wendel who alerted us to the Quatour Ébène, soon after the ensemble’s 2008 appearance at the International Music Festival in Wissembourg – by which time the four artists had already been performing together for nearly a decade. It took them a while to get to the Triangle – their area debut did not occur until 2014 – but that performance made positive critical waves. Now, at last, the foursome has returned to Durham, this time for a wonderful program combining Beethoven with Fauré that capped the current year’s offerings of the venerable Chamber Arts Series and marked the last concert on this season’s Duke Performances, too.

The Beethoven proved particularly significant in the life of the ensemble, not to mention the Baldwin Auditorium audience that heard them play the First and Fourteenth Quartets with astonishing levels of refinement and attention to technical and artistic details. (Be honest: Have you ever heard such quiet pianissimos, from any ensemble?) That’s because this performance was part of a three-year undertaking by the group that will culminate in a complete cycle of the 16 quartets in Carnegie Hall next year marking the composer’s 250th birthday, part of the preparation for which is a documentary film and a series of live recordings anticipated to embrace concerts on seven continents that will take this music and its message of idealism and universality literally around the world – as explained by the cellist during pre-concert remarks* meant to inform the crowd why five cameras and eight microphones surrounded the chairs and music stands at the center of the stage. (There is more information on the quartet’s home page.)

All that said, it was the music that mattered in Durham, and there can have been few who were not enthralled by the superb playing, the magnificent definition, clarity, and articulation, the rock-solid intonation, and the engaged but almost always restrained stage deportment of the four artists – Pierre Colombet and Gabriel Le Magadure, violins, Marie Chilemme, viola, and Raphaël Merlin, cello (whose instruments are described here). By any standard, this was an exceptional reading of Op. 18/1, in F, one in which the inner voices emerged with complete transparency, this being merely one aspect of the rendition that distinguished it from the work of other quartets – yes, even other world-class ones. One may have wondered if the young Beethoven intended such high degrees of refinement, often seeming to border on reverence – these early quartets were (as the uncredited program notes reveal) inspired by Classical forms and norms, notwithstanding Beethoven’s immediately recognizable departures from those conventions. So I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anything quite like what the Ébène did with it. And for certain I am eager to hear more. And we will!

The grand finale was the huge, expansive Quartet No. 14, in C-sharp minor, Op. 131. This is the quartet famously arranged for string orchestra by Dimitri Mitropoulos, back when symphony orchestras used quartets to demonstrate the competitive virtuosity of their string sections – all the big ones did this, along the way offering transcriptions of Bach and other masters, some of whose music did not begin to be heard in its “original” forms for years thereafter. And this is also the quartet famously played by the strings of the Vienna Philharmonic in Mitropoulos’ edition and led by Leonard Bernstein as a memorial to his wife Felicia. One would be hesitant to call it Beethoven’s most profound quartet, but it’s definitely in contention for that honor. And in this music, the visitors were simply extraordinary, in every conceivable way. Here, all that attention to detail, all that immaculate playing, all that close listening to each other, and all that refinement – refinement with a capital R – paid the most amazing dividends. One has rarely encountered such a quiet audience, a reflection of the fact that the players held them captive in this music. To cap a season with this – well, it was really something!

Between the two Beethoven quartets came the single work in this form by Fauré, composed in the last year of his life. It is not often heard, so the essay that unfolded before our ears on this occasion, courtesy of these fabulous artists, was especially welcome. Some may find the work itself an acquired taste – a person near us commented that it didn’t seem to go anywhere. But it repays close study and rewards in its own very special ways, reflecting an autumnal view of the world and of life that is similar to late Brahms but with much more transparency. We need more Fauré, not less, so in some respects this was a serene comfort and revelatory at once. And even the weather gods seemed impressed – though far be it from me to speak for the gods! – because as the exquisite slow movement began there was a roll of thunder the likes of which rarely penetrate the superior and oh-so-well acoustically insulated confines of Duke’s beautifully restored East Campus concert room. Bravo!

The Chamber Arts Series brings the Quatour Ébène back to Durham at the end of the 2019-20 season for half of the Beethovens (with the other half played six weeks earlier by the Belcea Quartet). For details of these and the presenter’s other pending offerings, click here. Be there!

*For the record, incidentally, those opening remarks, plus two rounds of commentary by a representative of the presenter, extended the starting time by a quarter of an hour. There was a substantial intermission. And the concert ended with one of Beethoven’s longest quartets. It was therefore 10:30 by the time the standing ovation and second recall of the ensemble were over.