Quatuor Hermès: A French Quartet Around the World

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Let it be known that the Quatuor Hermès, which makes its second appearance under the auspices of the Ladies’ Morning Musical Club on Oct. 6, is named after the mythological messenger of the gods, not the Paris luxury fashion house.

“But we would be very happy if the Hermès brand decided to collaborate with us,” Omer Bouchez, first violinist of this busy French ensemble, said on a rare day off. “Perhaps we could offer them a partnership at some point!”

Not that the quartet, founded in 2008 at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Lyon, needs any branding help. The Hermès won multiple first prizes in its first years, including a tie with the Armida Quartet in the 2011 Geneva International Competition.

The 2014 Hermès recording of Schumann’s three String Quartets attracted wide critical approval. “Phrasing, intonation and blend are spot on, and the performers temper the composer’s impetuousness with tenderness and grace,” was the comment in Classical Music. “Great elegance and clarity of tone, finely shaded dynamics and an admirable even-handedness of ensemble,” added Gramophone concerning a 2018 disc of Debussy, Ravel and Dutilleux.

French music is, of course, an important component of the Hermès repertoire. The LMMC concert includes the virtually unknown String Quartet No. 1 of Reynaldo Hahn as well as Beethoven’s Op. 18 No. 4 and Dvořák’s familiar Quartet Op. 96 “American.” Do French quartets have special insights into the music of the motherland?

“It is possible that in certain aspects we have a common sound aesthetic, a French ‘esprit’ because of our history and our common culture,” Bouchez answered. (The other established Hermès players are second violinist Elise Liu and violist Yung-Hsin Lou Chang. Christine Lee is trying out for the cello position, after the departure of Anthony Kondo.)

“But I really think that this French identity has its limits. Today, the world of music is very open and globalized. Everyone can find his own inspiration and follow his own aspirations. For example, in 2010 we chose to study in Berlin. The diversity of cultures was absolutely fantastic. This city helped us open up to the world, in music as in life.”

A good indication of the cosmopolitan Hermès outlook is the friendship the players enjoy with the distinguished Austrian pianist Alfred Brendel, whom they first met in a master class given in 2012.

“He was extraordinarily demanding and extraordinarily kind,” Bouchez said. “Fortunately for us, the relationship did not stop there. We saw each other often, in Poland, in Italy, and at his home in London for a memorable work session on Schubert’s String Quintet with his son Adrian [as second cello]. We were also able to assist him in musical illustrations of his concert lecture on Schubert’s Quartet No. 15 in G Major. He is still a great source of inspiration today.”

There are many young quartets. Do the Hermès players listen to their rivals?

“Many are also our friends,” Bouchez said. “There is a feeling of solidarity in the quartet community. This is something we realized early when we started participating in competitions.

“Perhaps because the discipline of the quartet is less centered on the individual, there is less ego. The approach is more a reflection of four.

“Happily, there is a strong interest today in the quartet formation, which allows young musicians to be free without being alone on stage while playing an extraordinary repertoire. We try to take advantage of the competition, which motivates us and also testifies to a real affection on the part of the public for the very special genre that is the string quartet.”

Even by contemporary jet-set standards, the Hermès is a well-travelled ensemble. They have performed in Argentina, Dubai and Japan as well as Europe and North America. Many of their August concerts were in France; much of their September schedule unfolds in Germany. Three days before the LMMC concert in Pollack Hall, they give a concert in Venice for the Palazzetto Bru Zane/Centre de Musique Romantique Française, a cultural association and publishing house advocating for French music. (The Hahn score, not surprisingly, is part of the program.) After Montreal, the players fly to San Antonio, Texas to perform for the Tuesday Musical Club on Oct. 8.

“Hermes is also the god of travelers,” Bouchez observed. “Our name suits us quite well – we who are always on the road!”

The Quatuor Hermès performs for the Ladies’ Morning Musical Club on Oct. 6 at 3:30 p.m. in Pollack Hall. Go to www.lmmc.ca.

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Arthur Kaptainis has been a classical music critic since 1986. His articles have appeared in Classical Voice North America and La Scena Musicale as well as Musical Toronto. Arthur holds an MA in musicology from the University of Toronto.

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