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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.