The amazon blurb and the lead review both mention the "youthful French charm" of the Quatuor Ebene, which sounds silly to me. the ensemble made a breakthrough in England by winning a BBC Young Generation award, so the youthful part is right. When I heard them in concert, I got the same impression that I get here in this Brahms program. The first violinist dominates the balance, with the other three members, especially the cello, acting as subordinate voices.The Ebene sound is bright and moves down form the top, as opposed to being built up from the cello line. vibrato is often nearly absent, and there's an edge to their attack. If all of that sounds French, I won't object, but to my ears the effect is precise and modern rather than charming.
The interpretation of Quartet no. 1 isn't as robust and aggressive as from the Alban Berg Qt. or as romantic as the Amadeus. The Ebene try to make Brahms's thick textures lighter, and they find a wide variety of moods. This adds interest from event to event, although at the cost of making the first movement a bit choppy. The Romanze is elegantly done, with close voicing and real assurance in handling the long phrases. Thee's a strong sense of mood from keeping the dynamics soft and hushed. When the same mood is carried over into the Scherzo, it sounds artificial to me - is this music meant to be so soft and inward, and paced so carefully? The finale is vigorously attacked and straightforward except for moments of inwardness that imitate the earlier movements - I suppose this is the Ebene's major idea.
In the F minor Piano Quintet, the Ebene and Japanese pianist Akiko Yamamoto have one distinct advantage over half a dozen illustrious predecessors, the recorded sound. It is very well balanced between strings and piano, and so detailed that you never lose sight of, for example, the viola line. Yamamoto is not a forceful or showy pianist. She is intent on blending in with the strings, a valid choice but different from performances where Gilels, Fleisher, or Pollini are the stars. Her restraint may go a bit too far when the piano is given a strong solo flourish, yet in compensation the Eben deliver a forceful combined sound. the slow movement comes off as more than a touch dull because no one seems to find the right lilt and rhythmic life in the theme. The Scherzo, however, is impressive in its vitality and unanimity. The finale is well executed but has little feeling of mystery at the outset or joy when the main theme bursts forth.
The reality is that the Piano Quintet, like the quartet that came before, receives an accomplished reading from well-trained musicians. No young ensemble can be expected to have the feeling for Brahms that comes with experience and tradition, but they can offer energy and skill. In the end, the Ebene never moved me, but I can't object to the excellence of what they are able to do.