The remarkable Ebène Quartet made a welcome return to NC as the second program of the distinguished Secrest Artists Series of Wake Forest University. A substantial audience was on hand in Brendle Recital Hall to hear some terrific performances. The members of the quartet are violinists Pierre Colombet and Gabriel Le Magadure, violist Mathieu Herzog, and cellist Raphaël Merlin. The ensemble repeated two of three works they played in their debut American tour as part of the 2013-14 Chamber Arts Society Series at Duke University which CVNC reviewed.

A vey refined performance of the Quartet in E-flat, K.428, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91), one of six quartets dedicated to Haydn, opened this Ebène concert. Mozart magically transforms very simple themes in the first two movements, often pushing the envelope in his use of chromatic harmonies. More rhythmic force is found in the menuetto third movement, while the lively finale abounds in many playful touches such as unexpected silences or abrupt dynamic changes, all apt souvenirs of Haydn’s own style.

The Ebène players possess one of the most refined, hushed ppp sound around and they used it extensively in the first two movements of K.428. This made their fff stand out at points in the first two movements and added to the impact of the last two. The quality of the blending of the sound of the four players was a constant wonder.

The order of the printed program was wisely changed to follow the Mozart with Quartet in A Minor, Op. 13, by the then-18-year-old Felix Mendelssohn (1809-47). While the model of Beethoven’s late quartets greatly influenced Mendelssohn’s musical techniques, a more Romantic influence held sway over Op.13. The composer had set the poem “Ist Es Wahr?” (“Is it True”) as a song, and he makes extensive use of the opening three-note motto throughout this work. Mendelssohn gives full scope to emotions making for a bold and dynamic score. The Ebène players cut loose with a vivid, no holds barred performance that gave full vent to the searing drama and emotions Mendelsohn packed into Op. 13.

The cutting-edge sounds of the magnificent Quartet No. 4, Sz.91, by Bela Bartók (1881-1945), would have been jarring had it followed the Mozart. Its post-intermission position served as a better place for its many innovations. This quartet is Bartók’s most profound achievement. It is in five movements, with the outer first and fifth and second and fourth sharing the same themes, mood, and character as part of an overall symmetrical arch or bridge structure. The keystone third slow movement is further divided into an A-B-A form with the B section the center of the whole quartet.

The Ebène players’ interpretation and performance was nothing short of spectacular. Their precision in playing Bartök’s pioneering techniques, complex harmonic dissonance, inversions and retrograde treatment of motifs, along with glissando, ponticello, and even pizzicato glissando (strings played while sliding a finger along them) were given breathtaking execution. What a plethora and palette of plucked strings, including the composer’s pioneering Bartók pizzicato in which the plucked string rebounds against the fingerboard!

Hearty audience applause was rewarded by an unusual encore, the Ebène Quartet’s own transcription of the part of the theme from the film music from the movie Pulp Fiction (1994) directed by Quentin Taratino. The selection was an old Greek melody, “Misiriou,” a sort of urban Greek folk music that was first recorded by Theodotos Demetriades in 1927. Intense, swirling music was played by the violins and viola above the strummed strings of the cello or the slapped percussive thumps upon the cello’s sides.

This was the farewell tour for violist Herzog who will be replaced by Mathieu Boisseau in 2015. Herzog has set a high standard to uphold.

Four Secrest Series performances remain this season.. The Orquesta Sinfänica del Estado de México will feature Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez January 28. Pianist Benjamin Grosvenor will appear February 26, followed on April 16 by a recital by cellist Alisa Weilerstein and pianist Inon Barnatan. See our calendar for details.