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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
String Quartets, Vol. 3

Quartet in D major, Op. 44 No. 1 (1838) [28.46]
Quartet in E minor, Op. 44 No. 2 (1837) [25.59]
Four Movements for string quartet, Op. 81 (1827-1847) [20.09]
Henschel String Quartet
rec. 11-14 March 2004, Studio 1, Bayerische Rundfunk
ARTE NOVA 82876 60848 2 [75.40]


The three quartets of Mendelssohn's Opus 44 date from 1837-38, and they all honour the classical tradition of four movements. However, in each case Mendelssohn opts for the less conventional placing of the slow movement third. The Quartet No. 3 featured in Volume 2 of the Henschel Quartet’s series, but the other two are both included here.

While it was published as the second in the set, the E minor Quartet was in fact the first to be written. The best of Mendelssohn is to be found in the chamber music, and Opus 44 No. 2 certainly supports this generalisation. For example, it contains one of the composer's most effective openings, recalling that of the celebrated Violin Concerto, yet to be composed. There are two important themes, both of them distinctive and pleasing, and in classical fashion there is the option of an exposition repeat. Rhythmic vitality, always one of Mendelssohn's strengths, is found in abundance, and the return of the main material at the close of the development is achieved with consummate skill and pacing.

These strengths can found again and again in the Henschel Quartet’s programme, presented as they are in sensitive performances, sympathetically recorded. If anything the D major Quartet, Opus 44 No. 1, has more of those characteristic quicksilver rhythms than the other music collected here. Be that as it may, this is a lively and entertaining performance, and the sharpness of the playing (in the best sense of the term) is matched by the precision of the ensemble and of the recorded sound too.

The remaining item the posthumous collection of four pieces collected as Opus 81, is not intended as a unified composition. A few black marks here for Arte Nova’s booklet and its confusing links with the music on the disc. Neither is presented in the order of the pieces, 1-4, but at the same time there is no consistency. The notes discuss them in the order 4, 3, 1, 2, whereas the disc plays them in the order 1, 2, 4, 3. Mendelssohn’s Opus numbers are a can of worms as it is, without a modern recording adding to the confusion.

Whether these four pieces actually work as a unit is open to debate. Certainly Mendelssohn composed them over a twenty-year period, the Fugue of 1827 coming very much first. Because they are the work of a master they will always sound convincing, but whether they should be performed and recorded so as to seem a unified four-movement piece is another matter altogether. The performance is as pleasing as the Henschel Quartet have provided elsewhere in the series, but I am not altogether sure that his cause is best served by the issues this presentation raises.

Terry Barfoot

see also review by Michael Cookson

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