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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
String Quartet in A minor, Op. 13 (1827) [31:08]
String Quartet in D major, Op. 44 No. 1 (1838) [32:32]
Fugue in E flat major, Op. 81 No. 4 (1827) [5:34]
Pro Arte Quartet
rec. 20-21 December 2004, Mills Hall, Madison, Wisconsin
UW-MADISON SCHOOL OF MUSIC 1931569-12-6 [70:14] 

There are strong grounds for taking the view that the best of Mendelssohn is to be found in the chamber music. Anyone wanting to put this contention to the proof could do no better than investigate the string quartets and specifically this attractive disc, since it contains performances conveying such skill and understanding. 

Of the two works featured here, the relatively early A minor Quartet is perhaps the finer, though both find the composer at the height of his powers. And what powers they are, for the young Mendelssohn remains the world's greatest-ever creative prodigy, surpassing even Mozart. In their performance the Pro Arte play admirably and are captured in pleasing recorded sound. For comparison, the Vellinger Quartet on ASV (CD QS 6236) play immaculately also, but perhaps with greater expressive freedom. At the same time their attention to detail in matters of dynamic nuance brings much reward too: this is quartet playing of the highest order. 

In either performance, in the A minor Quartet Mendelssohn scores on every count. The melodic invention is inspired, but the formal command is strong and the overall vision is hugely imaginative. Nowhere is this more so than in the finaleís closing phase, when we move into unexpected regions, in which the musicís vision is nothing short of extraordinary. Anyone who thinks that Mendelssohn has a restricted range of expression should listen to this. 

The three quartets of Mendelssohn's Op. 44 date from 1837-38, and they all continue the classical tradition of four movements. However, in each case he opts for the less conventional placing of the slow movement third. If anything the D major Quartet, Op. 44 No. 1, has more of those characteristic quicksilver rhythms than the other music on this CD. Be that as it may, this is an entertaining performance, though the recorded sound has less bloom than in Op. 13. On balance the performance by the Henschel Quartet on Arte Nova is a least a match for the Pro Arte (who also include Op. 44 No. 2 and the complete Op. 81), but preferences may come down to couplings, since either version is perfectly satisfactory.

The posthumous collection of four pieces collected as Op. 81 was not intended as a unified composition and was composed over a span of many years. In fact the Fugue of 1827 came very much first, although the opus number suggests it dates from the last years of Mendelssohnís life. The Pro Arte Quartet perform it with accuracy and with feeling. 

Terry Barfoot 




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