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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
String Quartets Vol. 3
String Quartet in D major, Op. 44/1 (1838) [28:46]
String Quartet in E minor, Op. 44/2 (1837) [25:59]
Four Movements for String Quartet, Op.81 (1827-47) [20:09]: 1) Andante (Tema con Variazioni) in E major, Op. 81/1 (1847) [05:28]; 2) Scherzo in A minor, Op. 81/2 (1847) [03:28]; 3) Fugue in E flat major, Op. 81/4 (1827) [05:22]; 4) Capriccio in E minor, Op. 81/3 (1843) [05:51]
Henschel Quartet
rec. March 11-14, 2004, Studio 1, Bayerischer Rundfunk, Munchen, Germany. DDD
ARTE NOVA CLASSICS 82876 60848 2 [75:40]




Mendelssohn was revered in his lifetime as one of the very great composers. He has become considerably less regarded, since the mid-twentieth century, although in the last few years the tide seems to be turning in his favour. A handful of compositions has kept Mendelssohn’s name in the spotlight. Works such as, the Violin concerto, the Overture to a Midsummer Nights Dream, the Italian symphony and the Octet Op. 20 are the still the most likely to be encountered on record or in concert. Of the composer’s substantial choral output only the oratorios St. Paul and Elijah are still regularly performed by choral societies. In addition to those ‘masterworks’ mentioned above, Mendelssohn has become extremely well served in the record catalogues and his works for the string quartet now boast many top-class versions.

Following swiftly on the heels of their acclaimed first and second volumes of the Mendelssohn quartets 74321-96521-2 and 82876-57744-2, Arte Nova has released the third volume in the Henschel series of Mendelssohn string quartets. The award-winning Henschel Quartet are a young German-based ensemble that comprises three siblings and a cello partner. They are successfully carving out an excellent international reputation for themselves. Last year I was fortunate to attend one of their recitals that left me with a most favourable impression.

The three Opus 44 String Quartets mark the centre of Mendelssohn’s late compositional life and display a wonderful blend of Classical structures and Romantic emotions. Dedicated to ‘His Royal Highness the Royal Prince of Sweden’ the set is not always given the praise that it most certainly deserves.

The String Quartet in D major, Op. 44/1 was completed in 1838 and although the it was numbered the first of the set it was the last of the three to be finished. Said to be Mendelssohn’s favourite quartet of the set, the work uses the bravura key of D major. Particularly notable is the substantial part for first violin throughout the score. Mendelssohn wrote of the work to the violinist Ferdinand David whose ensemble was to première the score, “…it is more impassioned than the others and more rewarding for the musicians.

The light and lively first movement, lengthy at twelve minutes, is handled with considerable freshness by the Henschels, albeit in a rather nervy manner. In the dainty and exquisitely melodious second movement menuetto, considerable prominence is given to the first violin. The players are least successful here and their interpretation seems rather on the swift side. The third movement andante, is a lovely ‘song without words’. The Henschels respond well with a moderate pace in the delicately scored and charmingly harmonised movement. In the striding finale the players are especially spirited and airy.

The String Quartet, Op. 44/2 is in E minor, one of Mendelssohn’s favourite keys. It was the first of the set of three to be composed in 1837. Many renowned judges consider this his finest string quartet.

The opening movement allegro assai appassionato is lengthy at ten minutes with a singing main theme over a restive accompaniment. In this temperamental movement, so rich in variety of material and texture, the Henschels offer a suitably moody interpretation. The second movement is a rapidly-paced scherzo that proved extremely successful at the première. The boundless invention of the work is interpreted by the players with an impish and scampering feel. The soulful third movement andante has the melody and structure of a ‘song without words’. Perhaps the Henschels’ playing is a touch too swift in a movement that needs time to breathe. The quartet are most impressive and seem to revel in the variety of compositional styles in the finale; a movement that displays Mendelssohn’s exalted powers of construction and expression.

The Four Movements for String Quartet, Op.81 are miscellaneous individual pieces that Mendelssohn wrote between 1827 and 1847. They are often played as a sort of supplementary work. The score was given the opus number 81 when published posthumously in 1850. I have seen the four pieces played in a couple of different orders but most usually in the sequence in which they appear on this release. It is often fairly remarked upon how little musical kinship there is across these four unrelated movements.

The Andante known as Tema con Variazioni in E major was composed in 1847. An undemanding and expressive theme is followed by inventive and delightful variations performed here with expressiveness and perception. The excellent second movement Scherzo in A minor was also written in 1847. It is an attractive and lightly textured piece in which the players provide considerable vivacity and humour. From 1827 the Fugue in E flat major is the earliest work in the set. The Henschels are searching and tender in this bleak piece where Mendelssohn displays deft workmanship and frugal resourcefulness. Composed in 1843, the Capriccio in E minor is in two distinct sections with an opening andante followed by a contrasting allegro fugato. Most impressive is the players’ convincing and vigorous approach.

At super-budget price these adroitly perceptive accounts from the Henschel are excellently performed and would grace any collection although the level of tone colour in their playing doesn’t quite match that of their main rivals. The sound quality is very acceptable. A minor drawback is the rather technical annotation. Monika Henschel-Schwind of the Henschel Quartet informs me that in June 2005 all three Arte Nova volumes will be available together in a bargain box set of the complete Mendelssohn string quartets. This means that their previously unavailable account of the early String Quartet in E flat major from 1823 will be included as part of the Arte Nova set. Enticingly I am told by the Henschels that following the Mendelssohn set a Beethoven disc to be released on Arte Nova, in August 2005.

Complete sets of the Mendelssohn quartets have been around for some time. Sets from the Cherubini Quartet on EMI 585693-2; 585805-2 and 586104-2, the Melos Quartet on Deutsche Grammophon 415 883-2GCM3 from 1987 and the Coull Quartet on Hyperion CDS44051/3 from 1994, are now well established.

The market for Mendelssohn’s complete works for the medium has now become an extremely competitive arena with several new sets having become available recently. In addition to the Henschel, the Leipzig Quartet have recently concluded their complete series (plus the Octet) on the MDG label MDG 307 1055-2; MDG 307 1168-2; MDG 307 1056-2 and MDG 307 1057-2 of which I have only two of the four volumes. I do however have four other recently complete sets in my collection; namely those from the Aurora on Naxos, the Talich on Calliope CAL3311-3, the Emersons on Deutsche Grammophon 4775370 (plus the Octet) and the Pacifica on Cedille CDR 90000 082 (USA import). As each of these more recent sets is of the highest quality, the decision which to purchase is really down to personal taste.

My first choice versions of these works, for their fluency, warmth, rich tone and vitality, form part of the Pacifica Quartet’s complete set on mid-price on Cedille CDR 90000 082 (USA import). For their seamless and irresistible playing I would also not want to be without the accounts from the Talich Quartet’s from their complete set at mid-price Calliope CAL 3311.3.

Excellent performances from the Henschel Quartet. They would enhance any collection.

Michael Cookson




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