(1809 - 1847)
String Quartet No. 2 in A major, Op. 13 (1827) [32:12]
String Quartet No. 1 in E flat major, Op. 12 (1829) [27:07]
rec. Church of St Silas, Kentish Town, London NW5, 18-19 September
CHANDOS CHAN10534X [59:32]
Although the present quartets are Mendelssohn’s official first two quartets, he had in fact written an earlier quartet in 1823 when he was fourteen. But these two are also the work of a young man. He wrote the A major when he was eighteen and had just left his teens when he wrote the E flat major. The numbering only indicates that they were published in reversed order.
We tend to regard Mendelssohn as a rather light-hearted composer, free from brooding in the Beethovenian manner. Many of his compositions are light and airy. His Italian symphony is a good example and not only in his music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream do we find elves dancing - mysticism in early romantic spirit - but not soul-searching. Maybe he doesn’t reveal his innermost thoughts and feelings in the A major quartet either but at least one can believe that he doesn’t only skim the surface, that he is touched by some deeper experience.
The inward opening adagio is like a soft invitation to the listener to share his feelings and towards the end he introduces a motto, a three-note phrase (C sharp, B, D), which is a quotation from his song Frage, Op. 9 No. 1. The poem, by Johann Heinrich Voss, says: ‘Ist es wahr, dass du stets dort in dem Laubgang, an der Weinwand meiner harrst?’ (Is it true that you are waiting for me in the arbour by the vine-clad wall?). The agitated allegro vivace with ist dotted rhythm that follows, seems to reveal conflicting feelings. One can’t avoid relating to Goethe’s young Werther.
The second movement is peaceful and it seems that the storm has abated, and in the intermezzo he is totally relaxed so that the elves come out in the central adagio di molto and dance a feather-light scherzo.
But the presto finale finds Mendelssohn in uncommonly agitated mood. Whether this is autobiographical or not, whether he is a poseur or not is irrelevant, but he manages to express an internal combat that is deeply captivating. Then in the slow coda, adagio non lento, the motto from the beginning returns, this time complemented with a longer quotation from the song. And doesn’t it seem that the calm that spreads in the music isn’t just resignation but the result of a positive answer to the question? I hadn’t heard this quartet before, but I was so fascinated by it that I played it three times in a row. It will certainly be added to my short list of favourite chamber music works.
The E flat major quartet was more well known territory, and even though storms are raging even here, they are slightly more subdued. It is lovely music throughout and the canzonetta is probably the singular best known chamber music movement in Mendelssohn’s output, often played as an encore.
The Gabrieli String Quartet has been one of the leading quartet ensembles in the world for several decades and have always made great impact through their nuanced playing. This disc is no exception. The contrasting feelings of the A major quartet are very well brought out and their intonation is to my ears impeccable. I have no other recording of this quartet available but the E flat major I have on a Naxos disc with the American Aurora Quartet. What first struck me was the more immediate recording on the Naxos disc - for good or bad. The players are more upfront and the effect is playing with more punch. The Gabrieli, recorded in a London church, are at some distance but there is no lack of clarity and the sound is very integrated. The Aurora throughout choose brisker tempi, and in the canzonetta this is all gain. The Gabrieli are more staid and seem to lack adrenalin. On the other hand the Aurora lack some of the sophistication, there is less light and shade in their reading. I am not saying that they are prosaic, and their straightforwardness is utterly refreshing. Having lived with their recording for at least ten years I feel fully in tune with them and I would guess that newcomers to the quartet - especially if they are relative newcomers to quartet music at large - may well find the Aurora more thrilling. I am glad to have both discs and the Chandos reissue is certainly attractive, especially at around a fiver.
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