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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
String Quartets - Volume 1

String Quartet (No. 6) in F minor, Op. posth. 80 (1847) [25:38]
String Quartet (No. 1) in E flat major, Op.12 (1829) [24:19]
String Quartet (No. 4) in E minor, Op.44 No.2 (1837) [27:55]
New Zealand String Quartet
rec. 22-24, 30-31 July 2006, Holy Martyr’s Church, Bradford, Canada. DDD
NAXOS 8.570001 [77:51]
Experience Classicsonline

Mendelssohn’s String Quartets may still not be as highly regarded as they should be but the number of sets of these works on CD is pretty impressive. In his comparative review Michael Cookson compared the merits of six complete cycles and to these can be added, in my collection, at Full Price: Eroica Quartet (HM), on period instruments and the excellent Leipzig Quartet (MDG). At lower midprice/budget: Melos Quartet (DG), Artis Quartet (Accord), Quatuor Ysaye (DG Triple), Coull Quartet (Hyperion). Recently, the Cherubini Quartet were re-released as a bargain triple on EMI but as Brian Wilson points out theirs is not complete although it includes the three works on this Naxos CD; for around £7 it is well worth snapping up! Naxos too had previously brought out the Aurora Quartet’s Mendelssohn on 3 CDs about 14 years ago. It was through these performances that I got to know the works as it’s rare to hear them in chamber concerts. As you can see, the competition is pretty fierce in these works even for a £5 CD with 77 minutes of music!
The New Zealand String Quartet (NZSQ) have been going about twenty years and have made several CDs including a highly regarded Berg disc released belatedly last year. They have been preparing for the Mendelssohn cycle for some years and have performed them regularly; July 2006 found them in Canada to lay down the first installment. To complete this international connection, the cover of the CD has a stone bench from Scotland for no obvious reason! The recording is clear and, provided you can cope with church acoustics, generally captures the quartet well in these fine works.
Mendelssohn completed seven quartets plus four pieces he included in Op. 81; one remained unpublished in his lifetime. He published them in a different order to composition so this CD therefore contains his third, fourth and seventh quartets. NZSQ start with the late quartet written in Mendelssohn’s last months with his “Dream” world forsaken in the grief for his sister Fanny’s death. The first movement is well played and sounds good but I missed the passion other renditions reach. The whole performance was fine and would be good in a concert but not top-notch. Moving surprisingly back to Op.12, actually his third written quartet, the NZSQ put in a spirited performance but appear to hold something back. This piece was a natural development for the youthful genius who’d written his Octet at 16! Five years later the first movement has a slow beginning, harking back to Beethoven’s Op. 74 “Harp Quartet”; although this “beginning before the beginning” originated with Haydn and was developed by Mozart. NZSQ play this with just the right emphasis and continue well in the super melody which follows. When we get to the wonderful second movement Canzonetta, with its throwback to “Midsummer Nights Dream” the NZSQ seem marginally less involved than either the previous Naxos version by the Aurora. Certainly they trail behind The Henschel Quartet: Michael Cookson’s top choice. For a historic version I played the 1935 Budapest Quartet, which I got for a £1 last year coupled with with their legendry Grieg; despite the age and “portamenti”; it’s heavenly! NZSQ acquit themselves in the last two movements - on their own terms I enjoyed this.
The String Quartet No. 4 in E minor, Op. 44, and No.2, completed 18 June 1837 is roughly midway between No. 1 and No. 6 and was just after Mendelssohn had married the eighteen-year-old Cécile Jeanrenaud. Like Haydn, Mendelssohn returning to the quartet wrote three and the key E minor, is that of the Violin Concerto of 1844. This is a splendid work and the NZSQ put in a fine performance. The church acoustic will divide opinion; for example my son found it “veil-like”, whilst my wife much preferred the NZSQ to the Henschel! It all goes to show that personal taste will determine in the end … and quite right too! The final movement brings in a sublime second melody which is more demonstrative in the “period” performance by The Eroica Quartet (HM). The sound at the end of the “con fuoca coda” was to my ears slightly unnerving; perhaps an edit!
At budget price this CD will give a good introduction to the uninitiated and nobody new to these works should feel short-changed. In a very competitive marketplace, these recordings would not be my first choice; please don’t ask me what would be. For newcomers I’d suggest getting the Henschel’s 3 CD set for no more than £15, or singly - a great bargain. For those who download I would strongly recommend Emusic for the excellent Eroica Quartet recordings. The Melos Quartet still sound splendid and their set remains one I return to regularly.
In any event do listen to these works from one of the string quartet’s finest composers!
David R Dunsmore


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