In a 1777 letter, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart recommended his sister learn some violin sonatas by Josef Myslivecek, a sure-fire hit if played “with much expression, taste, and fire.” Quatuor Ébène, the fine French string quartet, eventually encompassed that trinity at its Celebrity Series concert on Friday. Violinists Pierre Colombet and Gabriel Le Magadure, violist Mathieu Herzog, and cellist Raphaël Merlin have a repertoire spanning classical, pop, and jazz, easily flipping between different channels of flair. Mozart’s commandments, though, were kept separately before being kept together.
The group has no shortage of taste: Mozart’s E-flat major Quartet, K. 428 was practically overcome with it, elegantly genteel to a fault. The dominant sound — apart from brief (and formally confined) rustic outbursts in the Menuetto — was a frictionless murmur: perfectly balanced, perpetually muted and veiled. It had the fine brushwork but smoothed detachment of a cameo miniature.
With Béla Bartók’s Third Quartet (Sz. 85), the concert caught fire. Some came courtesy of Bartók’s effects — pizzicato, col legno, sul ponticello — all exquisitely realized. But the interpretation, too, was more vibrant — fortissimos, for instance, suddenly bloomed in taxonomic profusion, lean and sharp to heavy and percussive. The playing was still on a tight leash, but the precision was compelling rather than merely admirable.
Expression was paramount in the second half, devoted to the quartet’s pop and jazz repertoire. The arrangements favored stylistic evocation over improvisational unpredictability, but the style was splendid. “Misty” had lush, twisty harmonies and an off-hand, discursive introduction to do Erroll Garner proud. “Nature Boy” was recast as driving, perpetual-motion bop, with Merlin machine-stitching a pizzicato bass line.
The jazziest moments came when the music was most relaxed. For a couple of choruses of Miles Davis’s “All Blues,” the quartet more casually circled the beat, to fluid, intriguing effect. A similar looseness enlivened Michel Portal’s theme from Nagisa Oshima’s love-triangle-via-chimpanzee “Max mon amour,” featuring a patiently lyrical solo from Herzog.
“Miserlou” — the Greek song Dick Dale famously adapted into surf-rock — juxtaposed homages to Ravel and Piazzolla with an accelerating, Greek-wedding round dance. “Come Together” translated McCartney and Lennon into Bartókian dialect — slashing downbows, salient glissandi. A newer addition to the group’s playlist — Piazzolla’s “Libertango” — was compendious, almost suite-like in its textural variation.
Their encore — “Someday My Prince Will Come” — ranged far: a vocal chorus, sung in lovely four-part harmony; a brisk improvised solo for Colombet; a brief, lusty detour into Viennese waltz; a quietly, piquantly ambivalent ending. Taste, fire, expression: Mozart would have approved.