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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
String Quartets: Volume 1
String Quartet Op.12 in E flat major (1829) [23.38]
String Quartet Op.posth.80 in F minor (1847) [24.46]
Henschel Quartet
Rec. Studio 2, Bavarian Radio, Munich, 10-12 December 2001. DDD
ARTE NOVA 74321 96521 2 [48.54]

There are eight string quartets by Mendelssohn, of which six are complete. This disc features two of them, covering what might simplistically be termed his so-called ‘early’ and ‘late’ periods. Mendelssohn was given a hard act to follow. Those string quartets of Haydn and Mozart, who virtually set the genre in tablets of stone were followed by those of Beethoven and Schubert who between them developed it to its tautest extremes. Mendelssohn’s String Quartet Op.12, from its outset, has affinities with a couple of Beethoven’s, namely Op.74 (in the slow introduction) and the late Op.127 (thematic material during the course of the first movement). However such similarities are restricted to melody and rhythm rather than structure. A feature worth mentioning regarding form is its cyclical reference to material from the first movement in the last.

A second quartet followed immediately in numerical sequence (Op.13), then a set of three (Op.44) which could be described as the composer’s ‘middle’ period of 1837-1838, and finally Op.80 written in the last year of his life. Op. 80 has the mark of death all over it, not only Mendelssohn’s but also that of his sister Fanny to whom he was devoted. As he himself wrote, ‘At first I could not think of music without feeling a great arid emptiness in both my head and heart’. He travelled to Switzerland in an attempt to distract himself from his grief, and began to compose this string quartet. The result is a work which continues in Beethovenian vein to develop and progress away from the conventional structure of the form. Instead he explores new areas of rhythm and harmony, emphasises both syncopation and counterpoint, and spurns safe melodies for turbulent ones, reflecting his state of mind. It is in all senses of the word, a final work.

The playing of the highly acclaimed Henschel Quartet (three siblings and an interloping cello partner) is idiomatic and sensuously stylish from the outset. At times they manage to produce an orchestral sound from their four instruments, while at the same time preserving that essential intimacy and clarity so essential to chamber music playing. Highlights of these performances reside in the impeccable ensemble in the second-movement Canzonetta of the early quartet, the very opening of Op.80 with its intense Sturm und Drang, the anguish of the same work’s Adagio, and the angered resignation of its Finale. We are a far cry from the precocious youth of the Octet. Instead we find ourselves at the emotional heart of Romanticism. The way in which these players capture with natural ease the essence of Mendelssohn makes one anticipate the second volume with mouth-watering relish.

Christopher Fifield

see review of Volume 2

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