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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
CD1
String Quartet No.1 in E flat, Op.12a (1827-9) [22:58]
String Quartet No.2 in a minor, Op.13b (1827) [32:23]
CD2
String Quartet No.3 in D, Op.44/1 (1838)c [29:32]
String Quartet No.4 in e minor, Op.44/2d* (1837) [26:52]
CD3
String Quartet No.5 in E flat, Op.44/3e (1837-8) [35:03]
String Quartet No.6 in f minor, Op.80 posth.f (1847, pub. 1850) [25:04]
Cherubini Quartet (Christoph Poppen, Harald Schoneweg (violins); Hariolf Schlichtig (viola); Manuel Fischer-Dieskau (cello))
rec. 22-26 October 1989b; 19-22 December 1989e; 9-12 Feb 1990d;15-19 July 1990a,c,f, Riehen bei Basel, Switzerland, Landgasthof; Doopsgezinde Gemeente Kerk, Haarlem, Holland.* DDD
Booklet with notes in English, French and German
EMI CLASSICS TRIPLE 5 00857 2 [3 CDs: 55:46 + 56:44 + 60:28] 

 


The Mendelssohn Quartets have been much better served on record than in the concert hall. Competition is extremely fierce, even in the bargain basement, for this new 3-CD reissue. In fact, these Cherubini recordings have been available for some time – and remain available – on EMI’s own bargain Encore label: 1 and 2 on 5 85693 2, 3 and 4 on 5 85805 2 and 5 and 6 on 5 86104 2.

EMI are careful not to label this 3-CD set ‘complete’, since there are several other works for string quartet which Mendelssohn composed. These are listed in a very detailed comparative review of several recordings of these quartets by Michael Cookson – hereafter MC. I am greatly indebted to that review because, after a first listen which failed to raise any critical hackles, I have taken MC’s descriptions of the six numbered quartets as my template, comparing what I hear from the Cherubini Quartet with his analyses of the music: ticking his boxes, as it were, as I went along. Apart from listing their catalogue numbers and referring to them as established versions, he does not refer to the Cherubini CDs, leaving me a clear field. 

His first choice overall was the Radio 3 Building a Library recommendation: the Henschel Quartet on budget-price Arte Nova which, therefore, is the obvious competitor for the present reissue. In one very obvious sense, the Arte Nova scores because it includes the extra works to which I have referred, thereby adding almost 40 minutes of music. Price-wise, the Arte Nova sells for around £15 in the UK against approximately £10 for the EMI. 

Though it has the earlier Opus number, Op.12, the E-flat Quartet was actually Mendelssohn’s second work in this genre. Op.12 and Op.13 both show the influence of Beethoven: here the slow introduction to the opening movement of this work is reminiscent of Beethoven’s ‘Harp’ Quartet (actually Op.74, pace MC, who confuses it with Op.95, ‘Serioso’) and the third movement, which MC tells us has been described as a 'noble
song of thanksgiving', carries more than a hint of the molto adagio of Beethoven’s Op.132 Quartet. The Cherubini Quartet capture the echo of the ‘Harp’ Quartet very well and more than hint at the emotion of Op.132.
 

The shadow of Beethoven fell over the next generation as that of Shakespeare did over his successors. Mendelssohn was well aware of Beethoven’s late quartets – his mother sent them to him as they were published – and we can hardly complain if the teenage composer was influenced by them. Indeed, it is a mark of the greater maturity of the three Op.44 Quartets that, as his sister Fanny observed, he had by then largely shaken off – or, rather, absorbed – the influence of his great predecessor. What is surprising is the degree of restraint which he shows in the early works by stopping short of the extreme emotion of late Beethoven: the andante espressivo third movement of this quartet is a degree more restrained than its model and the Cherubinis match Mendelssohn in that degree of restraint. 

In the opening movement they capture the broad, passionate and beautiful nature of the music, both the spacious and emotional melody and the calmer tone of the second subject. MC describes the performance by the Pacifica Quartet as urgent: the Cherubinis are certainly not urgent, but they are not unemotional either. Nor are they as technically proficient as the Emersons, though there is little to fault in their playing. Their tempo seems about right, though in the Allegro non tardante section they are, occasionally, just a little tardante. 

The second movement, too, finds the Cherubinis matching MC’s criteria, especially in the contrast which they achieve between the main theme and the mid-section. The notes in the booklet suggest an affinity between the closing section and the Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture and this the Cherubinis bring out well: they inspired me to write ‘MND’ in my notes before I read the booklet. 

The third and fourth movements go well, too, especially the Haydn-like surprise of the brisk opening chords of the finale, which follows the third movement without break. The material repeated from the first movement is given an appropriate touch of wistfulness by the Cherubinis, whose performance rightly stresses the extent to which Mendelssohn had already become his own man here. The unexpected key of c-minor in the finale might easily have led to another echo of late Beethoven but it didn’t.

The recording of Op.13, made almost a year earlier, is marginally brighter and more immediate than that of Op.12. Here, too, there are many echoes of Beethoven, not least the opening quotation from Mendelssohn’s song Ist es wahr? (Is it true), so reminiscent of Beethoven’s Muß es sein? (Must it be). Just as Beethoven answers himself in Op.135 with Es muß sein (It must be) so does Mendelssohn – but we have to wait for the finale to hear the answer. MC sees this use of a song-fragment to generate key themes as analogous to Schubert, though the result is less intense than in the latter’s Death and the Maiden Quartet – perhaps the Rosamunde Quartet would be a better analogue. 

In the opening movement the Cherubinis capture the lyricism and high drama in equal amounts. The powerful tension and anxiety which MC finds in the Bartholdy Quartet recording are there, but by implication rather than overtly: these elements are not underdone, but not unduly played down either. The enigmatic marking of the second movement, Adagio non lento, presumably means non troppo lento and, again, while the Cherubinis capture the intensity of the movement, they do not underline it. 

In the third movement, the dance elements are surely a little too stately for allegretto con moto and even the elves are a little ponderous in the Trio. With a lack of agitation in the staccato section, this movement is not one of the most successful: the Cherubinis fail to invoke the Midsummer Night’s Dream mood here. They do, however, make us aware of the storm clouds which gather at the opening of the finale and which never wholly disappear until the wistful answer to Ist es wahr? with which the music dies away at the end. The fugue section comes over a little tentatively and I didn’t much notice the spirit of Haydn and Mozart which MC thinks the best performances of this Quartet provide. Nor did I notice the kinship of parts of the finale with the Brahms Violin Concerto which MC remarks on in the Bartholdy version – certainly not the kind of interpretation of the Brahms which I prefer. On the whole, however, analysis of the performances on CD1 matches my initial judgement that overall the Cherubinis offer good, middle-of-the-road performances. 

The performances of the middle-period Op.44 Quartets bear much the same traits. Despite the numbering, Op.44/1 is actually the last of the three to be completed and is said to have been Mendelssohn’s favourite of the set. It is easy to see why: this is a happy work from a happy period of his life. The Cherubinis’ tempo for the long opening movement is about right: noticeably faster than the Emersons’ 12:50 and the Coull Quartet’s 12:30 but in no sense hurried. They bring out the brightness, exuberance and liveliness very well.

The decision to make the second movement a minuet must have been deliberate, in effect a return to the early Haydn quartets, before he substituted a scherzo, and even earlier. In one sense, though, Mendelssohn was breaking with tradition, as in Op.12 and Op.44/1 and 2, by placing the minuet or scherzo second and making the slow movement the third – effectively, looking backwards and forwards at the same time. Though, as MC observes, there is a hint of the rococo here, it is a 19th-century view of the rococo, so the daintiness and elegance must not be overdone – and they are not overdone here. The first violinist may not be quite up to the standard of Joshua Epstein (Bartholdy) or Simin Ganatra (Pacifica) but he makes a very good fist of his part and the Cherubinis as a whole never lose their way, as MC reports those two quartets do. 

The Cherubinis are perhaps a little too brisk in the third movement, but it is marked con moto as well as andante espressivo and they certainly keep the movement flowing. In the finale, too, they pace the music very well, occasionally pausing to savour the delights along the way. 

Op.44/2 was actually the first of the set to be composed. Despite the minor key, it is another happy work from this happy period and it receives a fitting performance from the Cherubinis: almost two minutes quicker than the Coull Quartet overall but never sounding hurried. The ‘MND’ echoes are there in the scherzo as are the reminders of Schubert’s Rosamunde Quartet which MC found in the slow movement and the rich variety of styles in the finale. Having heard this performance, it is not hard to declare Op.44/2 my favourite among Mendelssohn’s quartets: if memory serves aright, it was the first I ever heard, which may play some part in the matter, though I am pleased to note from MC’s review that many musicologists share the opinion. Don’t ask me for my favourite late Beethoven quartet: it’s the one I heard most recently. 

Op.44/3 is the longest and most gemütlich of Mendelssohn’s quartets and it receives a performance to match. The Cherubinis bring out the richness of content, the wit and brilliance, and the lingering influence of Beethoven’s late quartets – an influence now more fully absorbed. The opening movement is a long one and they give it its full weight. MC thought the Coull Quartet’s 13:48 incredible, but the Cherubinis are not far behind at 13:20, without sounding too slow, though they do occasionally linger unduly. In this movement Mendelssohn uses short-breathed motifs but, whereas Beethoven often ‘throws away’ such motifs casually, Mendelssohn integrates them so that they almost become longer lyrical melodies. The Cherubinis stress the integration rather than the shortness of breath. 

The scherzo is another of those echoes of Midsummer Night’s Dream, though, as the booklet notes, these are fairies with academic, fugal aspirations. The Cherubini Quartet stress both the puckishness and the academic pretensions. The third movement receives a suitably emotional performance. MC praises the Henschel Quartet here for playing as a single voice and the Cherubinis also speak to the listener with unanimity of purpose. The finale is played in lively fashion, though not quite with the furious impetus required for the opening. 

Will the Cherubini Quartet’s good-middle-of-the-road performance serve as well for the final quartet, Op.80, written after the death of his sister Fanny? He and she had had something of a symbiotic artistic relationship akin to that of Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy but, whereas Wordsworth’s lament for the decline of Dorothy was written in his own artistic decline, Mendelssohn was still at the height of his powers in this deeply moving work.

The opening of the first movement is not quite sombre enough, but the Cherubinis certainly more than hint at thoughts that lie too deep for tears. Perhaps the reason why their account is not ultimately fully satisfying is that they work too hard to integrate the disjointed sections of this movement. By mid-movement, however, their account catches fire. MC sees Op.44/3 as prefiguring Smetana, etc., but it is in the Cherubinis’ performance of this movement of Op.80 that I really hear the prefiguring of Smetana’s autobiographical First Quartet. They maintain the continuity of mood into the second movement. They may not emphasise the jarring syncopated rhythms of this movement as such, but their performance is full of the inexorability of fate. 

The adagio, the ‘Requiem for Fanny’, receives a moving performance. This movement carries much the same emotional weight as the adagio of Schubert’s String Quintet but I did not hear quite the same intensity from the Cherubini Quartet that I find in the Æolian Quartet’s version of the Schubert which I recently recommended (Regis RRC1278). In the finale the Cherubinis display a powerful sense of grief and restlessness if not the aggression to which MC refers. Both these movements receive due weight from the Cherubinis, whose tempi are slightly slower than those of the Coull Quartet on Hyperion, who otherwise tend throughout the cycle to be rather slower than most. The conclusion of the finale receives a robust performance and the recording throughout is more than acceptable. 

The sound throughout all three CDs never draws attention to itself for good or ill – generally clear and open and with a good tonal range, though not much depth of sound-stage. The recordings were made over a period of time and in different venues, so there is inevitably some variation: just occasionally the bass is a little prominent and muddy, but this is never a serious consideration. 

As well as MC’s parameters, I have, throughout, had the Emerson Quartet’s versions in my head – not the DG version which MC rated second choice overall, but the Wigmore Hall concert performances, broadcast on Radio 3 and, I think, a touch more spontaneous than the DG versions. Their complete set on DG is effectively hors de combat with the EMI set because it comes with the Octet, which many will already possess. I imagine that contractual problems would prevent the Wigmore Hall from issuing the live recordings on their own label but, if they could be released, they would be highly competitive. The same goes for their performances of the late Beethoven Quartets in March 2007. 

With brief but informative notes, this set is recommendable. Had it not been for the competition, I would have awarded a thumbs-up. For a small extra outlay, however, bearing in mind MC’s endorsement of the performances and the extra music on offer, most collectors would probably prefer the Arte Nova/Henschel set. Go for the 3-CD set on 82876 64009 2 if you want all the extra pieces.

Brian Wilson

 


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