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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
The Complete String Quartets and Octet for Strings

CD 1
String Quartet (No. 2) in A minor, Op.13 (1827) [29’40]
Fuga in E flat major, Op.81/4 (1827) [04’51]
String Quartet (No. 1) in E flat major, Op.12 (1829) [23’32]
CD 2
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]
CD 3
String Quartet (No. 3) in D major, Op.44 No.1 (1838) [30’47]
Capriccio in E minor, Op.81/3 (1843) [05’45]
String Quartet (No. 6) in F minor, Op. posth. 80 (1847) [23’49]
Andante (Tema con Variazioni) in E major, Op.81/1 (1847) [05’38]
Scherzo in A minor, Op.81/2 (1847) [03’26]
CD 4
Octet for strings in E flat major, Op.20 (1825) [30’20]
String Quartet in E flat major (1823) [23’51]
CD 4 is also a CD-ROM featuring a video documentary: ‘Recording the Octet’
Emerson Quartet: (Eugene Drucker (alternating as 1st and 2nd violin); Philip Setzer (alternating as 1st and 2nd violin); Lawrence Dutton (viola); David Finckel (cello))
rec. American Academy of Arts and Letters , New York, USA, Oct 2003; Apr 2004 DDD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 4775370 [4 CDs: 57:47 + 60:17 + 69:46 + 54:18]

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Musicologist R. Larry Todd in his essay on ‘The String Quartets of Mendelssohn’ contained in the Emerson String Quartet’s Deutsche Grammophon set writes: "Chamber music remained a constant preoccupation of Mendelssohn throughout the meteoric career that established him at the forefront of German music during the 1830s and 1840s. Already at the age of seven, the boy was coached in ensemble playing by the Parisian violinist Pierre Baillot, and among Mendelssohn’s earliest surviving works are various pieces for violin and piano from 1820, and a series of learned fugues for string quartet from 1821, all written under the supervision of his composition teacher, Carl Friedrich Zelter."

In recent years Mendelssohn’s music has become considerably better served in the music catalogues. This is especially true for the Complete works for the String Quartet that can now boast numerous top-class versions. Several complete sets of the Mendelssohn String Quartets have been around for some time and are firmly established in the repertoire. Notably the sets from the Cherubini Quartet on EMI 585693-2; 585805-2 and 586104-2, the Melos on Deutsche Grammophon 415 883-2GCM3 from 1987, the Coull on Hyperion CDS44051/3 and from 1993 the Aurora on Naxos vol.1 8.550861, vol.2 8.550863 and vol.3 8.550862.

The first complete set to be recorded was evidently from the Bartholdy Quartet in 1973 on Acanta 43 075 and this has been freshly re-released in a re-mastered three CD set by the Arts Music Red Line label 47130-2. Hot off the press is a re-issue of the complete quartets from the Quatuor Ysaÿe. That’s now available for the first time as a set on budget price Decca Trio 4732552.

This extremely crowded and competitive arena of the complete String Quartets is currently experiencing a tremendous surge in popularity. In addition to this Emerson set there have been several high quality alternatives recently released. These are the Pacifica on Cedille CDR 90000 082 (USA import); the Talich on Calliope CAL3311-3 and the Henschel on Arte Nova 82876 64009 2. In addition, 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. I have only two of the four volumes and cannot comment on the merits of the complete Leipzig Quartet set. Literally at the time of writing this review it has been announced that the Eroica Quartet, with their style of period performance practice, have finished their complete set of the String Quartets for Harmonia Mundi. I am not familiar with these accounts and at the moment I am unsure if the three volumes: vol. 1 HMU907245, vol. 2 HMU907287 and vol. 3 HMU907288 are available as an intégrale.

In their complete Mendelssohn String Quartets the renowned power and panache of the Emerson Quartet from the USA is superbly displayed and their classy playing is out of the top drawer. The Emersons have built a large following over the years and they will surely relish these polished interpretations that are well thought through with scrupulous attention to detail. The Emersons in two of the complete String Quartets are my first choice. In the String Quartet in E minor, Op. 44 No. 2 the Emersons’ account is not a performance from the Viennese classical world of Mendelssohn but an interpretation of sheer class and absolute command. In the String Quartet in D major, Op. 44, No.1 they achieve wonderfully polished and expressive playing. The blend of tone is nothing short of astonishing.

There are times when that special Mendelssohnian character could have been more present, as their playing becomes a touch too luxurious and romantic for my taste. Recorded at the American Academy of Arts and Letters the sound quality is crisp and clear and most realistic. The liner notes written by R. Larry Todd were a fascinating read. This excellent four disc set is currently available at mid-price and will never be far from my CD player. It is my second place recommendation among the complete sets.

Undoubtedly my first choice is from the Henschel on Arte Nova 82876-64009-2. Their marvellous playing is so sparkling, exhilarating and expertly performed throughout. These aristocratic interpretations are surely the closest that I have heard to Mendelssohn’s favoured Viennese classical period. Their accounts would undoubtedly have won the advocacy of the ultra-classically orientated Mendelssohn. They consistently discover the tempi necessary completely to convey both the letter and the spirit of the music, and their most sparing use of vibrato feels just perfect. The Henschels clearly have a special affinity for these scores and their interpretations are masterly illustrations of humane, old world music-making. More good news is that these performances are now available from Arte Nova at super-budget price. However, the reality is that this magnificent set would have been my first choice selection even at full price.

My recent Musicweb review of the complete Mendelssohn String Quartets compares in considerable detail the sets from the Aurora on Naxos vol.1 8.550861, vol.2 8.550863 and vol.3 8.550862; the Talich on Calliope CAL3311-3; the Henschel on Arte Nova 82876 64009 2; the Bartholdy re-released on Arts Music 47130-2; the Emersons on Deutsche Grammophon 4775370 (including the Octet for strings) and the Pacifica on Cedille CDR 90000 082 (USA).

This Deutsche Grammophon set of the complete Mendelssohn String Quartets from the Emersons includes an account of Mendelssohn’s masterwork the Octet for strings in E flat major, Op.20. As a bonus feature, the fourth disc also serves as a CD-ROM, entitled ‘Recording the Octet’. This is an entertaining and informative eleven minute video documentary of how the four Emerson members recorded the Octet for strings. The performers, with the encouragement of producer Da-Hong Seeto and the assistance of recording studio technology, decided to record the Octet themselves, rather than engage four additional players. The Emersons used eight different instruments that included some very famous originals and some modern copies, without stating which instrument was played at which time. Make no mistake this project was not just made for amusement or reasons of expediency, the Emersons take their art very seriously. Both concept and finished result have divided critical opinion and caused some controversy. The Emersons have provided a very special interpretation that made me sit up and take notice.

The Octet is a masterwork of pure genius and it is truly amazing that Mendelssohn was only sixteen when he wrote the score in 1825. Mendelssohn’s achievement was all the more remarkable as he composed the work out of the blue with no real precedents or models to follow. Compositions for Octet were extremely rare, especially those for strings only. Louis Spohr had recently composed a work for Double string quartet, which was not the same as an eight-part octet. Beethoven in 1792 had written an Octet for winds in E flat major, Op. 103 and the Schubert Octet in F major D. 803 was scored for winds as well as strings. Possibly Mendelssohn had heard the Schubert F major Octet, which was first performed in 1824. It is also worth pointing out that Mendelssohn’s teacher Friedrich Zelter could not have assisted him a great deal, as he was not capable of writing anything near as good himself.

Music writer William Altmann aptly provided a description of the character of Mendelssohn’s Octet, "The sea of sound that rages through the Octet is very powerful, achieving indeed quite an orchestral tone at times, though there is no lack of delicate passages." Mendelssohn left instructions that, "This Octet must be played by all the instruments in symphonic orchestra style… piano’s and forte’s must be strictly observed and more strongly emphasised than is used to in pieces of this character."

The playing from the Emerson Quartet in the warm and spacious opening movement is hugely impressive. Right from the opening bars I could feel the red-hot intensity of this reading and I particularly enjoyed the masterly change of pace that they achieved so effortlessly. Their playing in the gently lyrical second movement andante is full of passion; so overwhelming so that I found it sending a wave of shivers down my spine. Make no mistake, this is no coiffeured performance, but a highly electrifying and beguiling musical experience.

The third movement is the first example of what was to become Mendelssohn’s trademark elfin-fairy scherzos. The thrilling and high-spirited character of the movement is given a razor-sharp alertness, superb control and rhythmic precision. The final movement presto, with its masterly fugal writing is a dazzling tour-de-force, that is given a marvellous reading that projects the drama and intensity to most brilliant effect. The sound quality is cool and clear, although there was plenty of sonic activity going on down the left channel of my headphones, it did not detract too much from the pleasure of the performance.

In my collection I have several top quality accounts of Mendelssohn’s magnificent Octet. I hold in high regard those versions from the Leipzig String Quartet on MDG Gold 307-1057-2; The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Centre on Delos DE 3266; the celebrated period-instrument version from Hausmusik on Virgin Veritas 5-61809-2 and the critically acclaimed and evergreen 1978 recording from the ASMF Chamber Ensemble, on Philips 420-400-2. Tantalisingly, I have just been briefed on the release of a new period-instrument account from Roel Dieltiens and his Explorations Ensemble on Harmonia Mundi HMC901868.

Listening to any recording of the wonderful Octet has never previously engendered that special feeling of awe, excitement and total involvement as conveyed here by the Emersons, who penetrate deeply into the heart of the score. The Emersons are now my leading choice in the Octet for strings. Simply superb!

This is a highly desirable set and includes a really special account of the Octet for strings.

Michael Cookson

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