It hasn’t been that long that Felix Mendelssohn’s
String Quartets suffered from neglect in the recording catalog
and the Melos Quartet (DG) seemed the only game in town. But my
word, has that been remedied over the last ten, fifteen years.
Now there are superb cycles from the Pacifica
Quartet (Cedille), Talich (Calliope), Ysaÿe (Decca), Henschel
(Arte Nova), and Eroica Quartets (Harmonia Mundi). Additionally
available are cycles from the Emersons (DG, including the Octet),
the Coull (Hyperion), Cherubini (EMI), and Bartholdy String Quartets
(old, but re-issued recently by Arts Music). The Leipzig Gewandhaus
Quartet (NCA) has thrown its hat into the ring most recently.
They are not to be mistaken
for the Leipzig String Quartet, whose Mendelssohn String Quartets
Musikproduktion Dabringhaus und Grimm (MDG) has now packaged
into one box along with every other work that could conceivably
be included in such a collection: The youthful work of genius
that is the Octet op.20, the 1823 E major String Quartet,
the Four Movements for String Quartet op.81, and arrangements
of his orchestral works (Symphonies 1 and 5, The Hebrides
and Ruy Blas overtures) for piano four hands with violin
and cello. That makes the MDG box by far the most generous
in content. Although those latter transcriptions, it should
be said, are neither reason to choose this, or avoid another,
There are no weak spots
among the quartets; Mendelssohn moves from strength to strength.
That the two first numbered quartets are the most popular
is not surprising for a composer who wrote some of his finest
music before he turned twenty. Just the slow movements of
either of these quartets alone are a chamber music dream.
Also liable to become dreamy when played with too little energy.
The Henschel Quartet’s
performances, for example, are swift and no-nonsense, with
a tendency toward neutrality. The Gabrieli Quartet, whose
opp.12 and 13 recordings have just been re-issued on Chandos,
indulges the slow movements with unsurpassed delicacy that
I haven’t the heart to call “unnecessary”. The competitiveness
of those twenty year old, relaxed performances is astonishing.
The Leipzig String Quartet counters with solidity and the
most homogenous, integrated quartet sound. They slacken the
tension in the slow movements and make haste in the fast movements,
although not nearly enough to call either tempi “extremes”.
Their articulation is superb, although not with as much character
as the cursive Talich Quartet performances which remain my
favorite, achieve. And they take every repeat.
Op. 80 is one of the
most intense, harrowing, and fist-clenching works Mendelssohn
ever wrote; compared to much of his squeaky clean charming music,
it’s like an unshaven, boozing Mendelssohn’s announcement of “No More Mister
Nice Guy”. A clearer acoustic and keener separation of voices,
like that of the Henschel or Talich Quartets, makes the fast movements
more detailed; the very atmospheric, rich sound of the MDG recording
tends towards mild muddiness on anything except very good, very
detailed speakers, especially at the Leipziger’s speed. When,
and only when, listened to on HiFi equipment with an analytic
bent, the wealth of information contained on the MDG recording
does reveal audiophile material.
The Octet is performed with four colleagues, not,
like the Emerson’s gimmick, with themselves. Hausmusik
(Virgin), long time favorites that I’ve become used to and comfortable
with, don’t yet have to budge from top spot in my estimation,
but the enhanced Leipzig group - including Michael
Sanderling on cello - turns in a terrific performance with
all their strengths - balance and varied tempi - playing in their
favor. All that makes the Leipziger box one of the top choices,
even as my own favorite remains the Talich Quartet (no Octet)
and my first alternative - because they are so different from
the rest - the Eroica Quartetalso without the Octet and with volume
one not currently available.
Jens F. Laurson
Also available separately:
Complete String Quartets Vol. 1
Quartets op. 12 and op. 13
String Quartets Vol. 2
Quartets op. 44/1, 44/2,
String Quartets Vol. 3
Quartets op. 44/3, op. 80, Scherzo and Tema con variazioni
String Quartets Vol. 4
Quartet in E flat Major (1823)
Nr. 1 und Nr. 5
„The Hebrides” and „Ruy Blas” in arrangements
of LSQ, Olga Gollej and Gerald Fauth, Piano
reviews of Mendelssohn Quartets on
Michael Cookson provided a comparative
review of complete sets.
Jonathan Woolf’s reviewed the Bartholdy
Quartet cycle and also the terrific Pacifica Quartet recordings.
Michael Cookson reviewed the Emerson
Christopher Fifield reviewed volume
1 of the Henschel cycle and Michael Cookson volume
2 and volume
3, as did Terry Barfoot (here).
Zealand String Quartet (Naxos, volume 1)
was reviewed by David R Dunsmore.
Kevin Sutton recommended the single disc of the
Stephen Francis Vasta wrote about the Juilliard
String Quartet recording of the first two quartets and Brian
Wilson about the Cherubini