A gasp of horror went around the Wigmore Hall tonight when a violinist in the elite French string quartet announced that their founder-cellist Raphaël Merlin had broken his elbow in an accident. That is a massive blow for any musician, most of all for a string player. He will be out for a while.
They had found a replacement, Simon Dechambre of the lesser-known and much younger Quatuor Hanson. It looked like he had been summoned in such haste he had hadn’t the time to shave.
The first piece in the concert, given in honour of pianist Menahem Pressler’s upcoming 99th birthday, was not encouraging. A set of Fantasias by Henry Purcell commanded about as much audience attention as the wallpaper at Downing Street before Boris had it sexed up. The music was pretty-pretty baroque, the execution a bit tentative, understandably so given the late change of personnel.
Clearly, though, most of the rehearsal time had been invested in a thrilling performance of György Ligeti’s first quartet. Dated 1953 it was suppressed first by the Hungarian Communists, then by the composer himself who dismissed it with some deriasion as ‘Bartok’s seventh’. When he finally agreed to a performance, in Salzburg 30 years ago, it was evident that this was one of Ligeti’s little jokes.
The quartet is full of squeaks, whispers and things that go bump in the night. But the choreography is intricate and the extraneous effects – pizzicatos, knocks on wood – are rationed for shock impact. Violist Marie Chilemme discovered a sensuality in the piece I’d never heard before and her interplay with the new cellist was at once subtle and dramatic.
An unstuffy account of the first Schumann quartet gave guest cello Dechambre a moment to shine in the elusive Adagio. It may be that the French mistake this Schumann for the prophet of the European Union because there was no national character in the playing, just outstanding lyrical athleticism. The Ébènes, on this form, are the most seductive and elegant quartet that ever drew bow across strings.
They drew a packed and largely youthful Wigmore Hall roaring to its feet.