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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
The Complete String Quartets

String Quartet No.1 in E flat major, Op.12 (1827) [23’32]
String Quartet No.2 in A minor, Op.13 (1829) [29’40]
String Quartet No.3 in D major, Op.Op.44 No.1 (1837) [30’47]
String Quartet No.4 in E minor, Op.44 No.2 (1837) [27’01]
String Quartet No.5 in E flat major, Op.44 No.3 (1838) [33’08]
String Quartet No.6 in F minor, Op.80 (1847) [23’39]
Quartet in E flat major (1823, pub.1879) [23’51]
Octet for Strings in E flat major, Op.20 (1825) [30’20]
Fugue Op.81 No.4 (1827) [4’51]
Capriccio Op.81 No.3 (1843) [5’45]
Theme and Variations Op.81 No.1 [5’30]
Scherzo Op.81 No.2 [3’26]
The Emerson Quartet
CD ROM Video Documentary ‘Recording the Octet’ included on fourth disc
Recorded in the Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, Oct.2003 and April 2004
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 00289 477 5370 [4 CDs: 57’47 + 60’17 + 69’46 + 54’18]

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This beautifully packaged new set of Mendelssohn’s complete works for String Quartet enters a surprisingly crowded field. There are critically acclaimed cycles from the Talich (Calliope), Coull (Hyperion) and Cherubini (EMI), as well as an excellent, nearly-complete super budget cycle from the Henschel Quartet on Arte Nova. DG obviously tries to trump these sets by offering a bonus disc that includes the Octet, double tracked by the Emersons, of which more later. Anyone who has sampled the playing of this highly praised group from their other recorded cycles of Bartók, Shostakovich and Beethoven, will possibly know the type of playing to expect; immaculate intonation, bags of energy and strong, muscular phrasing that remind me of other modern groups, such as the Alban Berg. Whether there is enough charm, grace or warmth will be a personal matter, but you will not hear this music played with any more technical polish than here.

For some reason, the pieces do not follow chronologically through the discs, though some re-programming of your player can put this right to a degree, if it bothers you. Thus disc 1 opens with the Second Quartet in A minor, though as it’s considered one of his finest early works and was in fact written before the E flat Op.12, this is no bad thing. These youthful quartets owe a great deal to the revered classical models of Haydn and Beethoven, and there is also a reliance on the notion of ‘first violin plus accompaniment’, rather than a mastery of integration with the four instruments. However, such is the exuberance and rhythmic propulsion, allied to a Schubertian gift for memorable melody, that it is impossible not to like any of these pieces. There is also the composer’s Romantic sensibility coming very much to the fore, giving the music that uniquely ‘puckish’ edge (especially the scherzos) that we all know so well from his other famous scores.

This beautifully proportioned A minor Quartet displays many of these traits. The key signature and subtle use of dissonance recall Beethoven’s Op.132, but in all other respects this is pure Mendelssohn. He achieves a wonderful structural unity here by basing the melodic material of all four movements, either by direct quotation or variation, on his own song ‘Frage’ (‘Question’). The dramatic opening to the finale is positively operatic, the leader intoning a vocal-style recitative (marked ad lib.) over shimmering tremolando accompaniment. It therefore comes as no surprise when we read in the booklet that this work may have been inspired by a Berlin singer, Betty Pistor, to whom Mendelssohn had also secretly dedicated his Op.12. The Emersons are particularly good at identifying these unifying compositional features, giving their performance here a great feeling of ‘rightness’, a feeling of symphonic direction that is very compelling.

The two Op.44 Quartets come from nearly a decade later, when Mendelssohn was 28 and now a world-renowned composer. Interestingly, he appears to have reverted to a more classical style, especially in the key structures and formal proportions (especially the minuets). Here, the Emersons suitably tone down their vigorous athleticism, though they do not miss the mischief in the scherzo of the E Flat, with its rapid-fire staccatos and mock fugato.

For most admirers of the composer, the Quartet in F minor Op.80 is the high point of his oeuvre. Here, any classical balance or restraint is replaced by a subjective outpouring of grief at the death of his sister Fanny some two months earlier. It is obvious from the very start that we are in different emotional territory here, and it suits the Emersons to perfection. The nervous, agitated tromolos and wide melodic leaps that dominate the first movement, the macabre scherzo and, especially, the intense lyricism of the slow movement, all show a hyper-romantic compositional mind operating at fever pitch. Mendelssohn himself had only months to live and it’s difficult not to read some of these hard biographical facts into the Emerson’s performance. It is only one approach, however, and the Henschel Quartet does find a tad more humanity and inwardness of expression that is also deeply felt. The best music will always benefit from a variety of interpretive viewpoints, but it’s unlikely you will feel there is anything seriously missing with the Emersons.

The smaller ‘fill-up’ pieces are all expertly carried off, as is the very early E flat Quartet, written when the composer was only 14, but it may well be the bonus disc that decides it for you. This is the much-discussed Octet, where the Emersons join themselves in the studio. This is nothing new, of course, with famous examples from recorded history (I think of Grumiaux accompanying himself, Domingo singing tenor and baritone duets with himself etc.) and the Emersons, with such wonderful modern studio techniques, are completely successful. It’s impossible to tell that this is not one group, so it just becomes a question of the interpretation. Here, it could be argued that this is the best of the set, with the precocious 16-year-old composer’s astonishingly mature inspiration fully matched by these interpreters. Indeed, they seem to have taken his instructions from the first printed edition of 1832 as their blueprint. The composer wrote that ‘The Octet must be played by all the instruments in the style of a symphonic orchestra. Pianos and fortes must be exactly observed and more strongly emphasised than is usual in works of this type’. This could sum up the Emerson’s performance, from the thrilling dynamic momentum of the first movement, through to the fugal grandeur of the finale. The intricately shifting textures and divisions are superbly observed, and overall this group revel in, and share with us, the symphonic tour-de-force that gives this amazing work its universal standing and appeal.

I suppose it just remains to be said that the recording is absolutely first-rate, and the booklet notes by Mendelssohn scholar R. Larry Todd a model of their kind. You may be more interested in the video documentary than I was (perhaps if you’re more technically minded) but this DG box is a neat and economical way to get superb modern performances of life-enhancing music.

Tony Haywood

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