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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Complete Works for String Quartet

String Quartet in E flat major (1823) [24.04]
String Quartet in E flat major Op.12 (1829) [22.43]
String Quartet in F minor Op.80 (1847) [23.16]
String Quartet in A minor Op.13 (1827) [27.11]
String Quartet in D major Op.44 No.1 (1831) [26.22]
String Quartet in E minor Op.44 No.2 (1838) [22.03]
String Quartet in E flat minor Op.44 No.3 (1838) [28.56]
Andante and Scherzo in E major Op.81 Nos 1 and 2 (1847) [9.16]
Capriccio in E minor Op. 81 No.3 (1843) [5.47]
Fugue in E flat major Op. 81 No.4 (1827) [5.22]
Bartholdy Quartet
Recorded February 1973
ARTS 47130-2 [3 CDs: 56.36 + 70.58 + 67.31]

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I’m not aware that these performances have ever been re-released before and am working on the assumption that they were taped in February 1973. The documentation of this three CD Arts set is otherwise entirely silent on the source material. Fortunately we’re living in fecund times for lovers of Mendelssohn’s music for quartet – not just the Op.44 trio of works but also the earlier ones and the isolated pieces such as the 1827 Fuga and the 1843 Capriccio. The Bartholdy Quartet certainly performs the cycle more than capably, though the rather chilly acoustic afforded them does sometimes militate against their more effulgent and expressive moments - of which there are many.

They do bring out the youthful curve of the 1823 E flat and take a fluent, firmly moving tempo for its Adagio. Their corporate sound is quite lean; not dry, quite, but certainly not fat or over vibrated. It contributes to performances that are almost always on the ascetic side, ones that avoid prettifying and are often quite plainly spoken. Dynamics in the Minuet are rather ironed out by the recording level but the fugal finale is well brought off. The A minor of 1827 opens rather coolly but the inner movements are the problem; neither is sufficiently contrasted, with the result that the Adagio non lento and the Intermezzo sound to be taken at basically the same tempo. The proto-Smetana finale however is deftly done. A word of caution about the documentation at this point; the track details for this quartet are actually those of the Op.12 E flat, which have been duplicated.

It’s the E flat that gets a pleasing reading. Once more, a hallmark of the playing, the tonal quality of the foursome is rather reserved and narrow-bore, but they spring the once famous Canzonetta with fine feeling and equally fine rhythmic control. Contemporary quartets will infuse the slow movement with a far greater range of tone colours and warmth than the Bartholdy however. The Op.44 No.1 is neat if rather chilly. They take the con moto direction of the slow movement to the letter and whilst some will welcome its rather upright, slightly brittle patina others will doubtless savour an injection of breadth and warmth. The same priorities inform the E minor; a no-nonsense tempo for the moments, a Scherzo where the accents could be more sharply etched and a slow movement that’s very nearly an Allegretto in their hands. The last of the Op.44 set, the E flat, once again sees well set tempos for outer movements. Here again the Scherzo can be a touch inert and whilst there’s some good hymnal delicacy in the slow movement there’s also some one dimensionality about tone and a hint of metrical phraseology. The late F minor, Op.80, is propulsive – taking care not to relax too much for lyric subjects – but not unfeeling. They can certainly sustain a fleet tempo, as they do here, without sounding breathless but the obvious corollary is a relative sense of disengagement. The other smaller pieces are more than mere makeweights - not least the Andante and Scherzo of 1847, and they all conform to the quartet’s clear aims of clarity and anti-sentimentality.

Given these priorities a recommendation will be largely confined to admirers of the quartet. The Leipzig Quartet’s traversal of the complete works is an outstanding one and more recently groups such as the Pacifica have brought a touching intimacy to bear on the quartets. The documentation is in English, French and German.

Jonathan Woolf


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