The story has long been told through Melbourne musical circles. Some 40 years ago, a Melbourne Symphony Orchestra subscription concert was attended by an average audience. The visiting American soprano had not generated any additional ticket sales. Those fortunate enough to be present were rewarded by a performance of surpassing quality. The soprano? It was none other than Jessye Norman, whose recent death has been mourned worldwide. Needless to say, subsequent Melbourne performances by the diva were sold out.

Quatuor Ébène. Photo © Julien Mignot

This concert by Quatuor Ébène, I hope, will go down in the annals of Melbourne’s musical history as another “Jessye Norman” moment. Comfortably spread out across the stalls of Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, the smallish but attentive and enthusiastic audience was treated to a trio of Beethoven string quartets delivered with the most extraordinary energy, insight and sensitivity as any music lover could hope to hear in the world today.

Celebrating Quatuor Ébène’s 20 anniversary, these young French players are in the midst of a project celebrating next year’s Beethoven anniversary by touring the world performing the entire corpus of the composer’s quartets. They are making live recordings along the way, with a complete set due to be released early next year.

For this Melbourne concert three quite contrasting works were chosen that enabled the quartet to explore the remarkable breadth and depth of Beethoven’s string writing. Opening proceedings was the early G Major Quartet, Op. 18, No 2 in which the players impressed not only with their uniquely attractive sound (sweet, silvery and resonant) but also that most cardinal of musical virtues – the ability to become a single musical organism, speaking with utterly one mind and heart.

Not only were the light, capricious elements of the first, third and fourth movements well served by this artistic unanimity, but there was a remarkable energy behind every finely etched detail of the music. Pacing and timing were also expertly judged. The contrasting episodes of the second movement were given plenty of space by first violin, Pierre Colombet, while the Haydnesque jocularity of the finale was perfectly realised, with some splendid playing from cellist, Raphaël Merlin.

Forming a considerable contrast was one of Beethoven’s quirkiest creations, the F Minor Quartet, Op. 95, sometimes known as the “Serioso”. Making a convincing case for its unusual architecture and often strange tonal relationships, the players invested the music with rich and compelling contrasts of dynamic and timbre. Of particular note was the ferocity of the opening, the intensity generated from the cello’s initial descending motif in the second movement and the masterly control of dynamics in the softer part of the third. The changing moods of the finale and its abrupt end were handled with flair.

After these works which are exploratory in their own ways, came the emotional questing of the well-known and well loved “Harp” Quartet in E Flat, Op. 74. Beauty of tone was a constant hallmark of this beguiling account, whether it was the carefully matched harmonics of the pizzicato at the opening (from whence the work derives its nickname) or the aching, plangent melancholy of the second-movement Adagio. This emotional heart of the work was played superbly.

Control of tone colour and dynamics were finely honed, especially at the entry to the development section of the first movement, and the sense of resolution in the coda to the same movement was truly uplifting. Laser-like rhythmic precision in the third-movement Presto could not fail to impress, as did the buoyancy and flexibility of the finale with its theme and variations, where second violin, Gabriel Le Magadure and violist, Marie Chilemme also made elegant contributions.

At the end of this demanding program the listener was left with a feeling of awe and admiration, not to mention gratitude for having heard these superlative players. By way of relaxation, the Quartet was true to a New York Times review and did morph into a jazz band, offering a suave account of Milestones by Miles Davis.

Melbourne’s newest best kept secret is the Great Chamber Ensembles series at the Melbourne Recital Centre, of which this concert was the last for the year. In a year in which Melbourne has been graced with a procession of great string quartets presented by various organisations, those present to hear Quatuor Ébène will doubtless be talking about it for years, as it was arguably the best chamber concert of 2019. Hopefully the next time Quatuor Ébène is in town it will be a sell-out!