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It's easy to be sniffy about classical ensembles taking on popular music. With just cause, too. Many crossover attempts would have been best kept to the four walls of the musicians' own homes. That is not the case for Quatuor Ébene's Fiction though, a collection of their own arrangements of jazz, film and contemporary tracks. Equally as accomplished in jazz as they are in classical performance, the quartet has long held a dream to record a different sort of string quartet album. This is it, and it certainly is different.
The opening number is Misirlou, famous as the theme tune to Tarantino's Pulp Fiction. It's played with the same youthful freedom that made the quartet's debut disc for Virgin Classics, of Ravel, Debussy and Faure quartets, so exciting. Indeed, the ghost of Ravel puts in a surprise appearance in the opening textures and harmonic language, until shown the door by a fiery tango, which in turn soon smoulders into a sizzling rumba. The originality and variety flow thick and fast from here. Eden Ahbez's Nature Boy is an edgy jazz number, whilst Lennon and McCartney's Come Together is a highly rhythmic exploration of the different sounds and textures achievable by string quartet. Harmonics, pizzicato, glissandi and spiccato (playing with the wood of the bow) combine to extraordinary effect, capped off with a virtuosic violin solo improvisation.
The quartet also flexes their vocal chords with considerable musical charm. Viola-player Mathieu Herzog sings Streets of Philadelphia, and all four perform a French-translation, a cappella version of Someday My Prince Will Come from Walt Disney's Snow White. Guest vocalists include jazz singer Stacey Kent and opera diva Natalie Dessay, whose pared-down Somewhere Over the Rainbow is so stylistically removed from her usual opera voice that she could easily pass as a jazz singer herself.
Fiction is a triumph of originality and verve. It must be said, though, that the thought of other quartets joining Quatuor Ébene in this approach is a rather more terrifying prospect. Only a very few ensembles could pull off an album like this, so one can only hope that only a very few will try.