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.
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
The Four Movements for String Quartet, Op.81
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
performances from the Henschel Quartet. They would enhance any