It is a bit unfortunate that Erato released Quatuor Ébène’s latest album, Brazil, on the same day that they released Rio-Paris. On the surface both recordings seem to have grown out of similar projects, the interpretation of different styles of Brazilian music refracted through the performances of French musicians. In addition both albums featured performers with a solid command of the classical repertoire. However, while Rio-Paris succeeded through guitarist Liat Cohen’s engaging blend of skilled technique and expressive sensitivity to several significant Brazilian composers, not limited strictly to classical, Ébène’s strength has always emerged from the combination of their own command of the string quartet repertoire with an adventurous sense of improvisation.
The misfortune, however, is that Brazil never really played to those strengths, let alone the overall theme of the album. Over the course of its thirteen tracks, Ébène gets to fire on all cylinders on only two, neither of which is Brazilian in any serious way. The first of those tracks is Wayne Shorter’s “Ana Maria;” and the second is Astor Piazzolla’s “Libertango.” However, even in these two tracks, the improvisations sound more stilted than those familiar with Ébène would like to expect.
More successful are their collaborations with the French singer Bernard Lavilliers. While he is not Brazilian, Lavilliers has a sensitivity to the Brazilian style that emerges even when he is singing his own compositions. One gets the feeling that he was escorting Ébène into the domain of that style; and, in that respect, he served as an effective “tour guide.” Still that partnership never quite achieved the enticing subtleties emerging from Cohen’s engaging with the three vocalists on her Rio-Paris album.
More disappointing was the American singer Stacey Kent, whose awareness of the Brazilian style was about as minimal as one could get (not that her approach to Sting’s “Fragile” was any better). She has one of those little-girl voices that became popular when Angelo Badalamenti cultivated it in Julee Cruise for the music he composed for Twin Peaks. In the ensuing decades there have been many singers who have tried to follow Cruise, none of whom have been particularly successful. At best Kent has a solid sense of pitch whenever she has a good point of reference. The only time that reference deserted her was in the harmonically ambiguous introduction Ébène took to Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile.” The results were cringe-inducting but, fortunately, short-lived.
The real problem with this album, however, is that there just was not enough of Ébène doing the sorts of things they can do so well when they break from the conventions of “serious” music.