Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809 - 1847)
String Quartets - Volume 2
Capriccio in E minor, op.81/3 (1843) [6:02]
String Quartet No.2 in A minor, op.13 (1827) [30:32]
Fugue in Eb, op.81/4 (1827) [5:53]
String Quartet No.5 in Eb, op.44/3 (1838) [35:46]
New Zealand Quartet (Helene Pohl, Douglas Beilman (violins), Gillian Ansell (viola), Rolf Gjelsten (cello))
rec. 27-30 July 2007, St Anne’s Church, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. DDD
NAXOS 8.570002 [78:35]

If I have one thing to thank for the events of 2009 it is my discovery of the music of Felix Mendelssohn. Before last year I knew the usual Mendelssohn pieces - the Midsummer Night’s Dream music (which I studied for O level music years ago), the Scottish and Italian Symphonies, the delicious Octet, a few Lieder ohne Worte and the Violin Concerto. A friend of mine, after I expressed excitement at a recital of Mendelssohn’s string quartets in the Wigmore Hall told me that I was “woefully misinformed”. Underinformed would have been a better description for the music was always there, it was just me who couldn’t be bothered to make the effort to listen to it. Gradually, I am beginning to discover what treasures I have been missing all these years.

This CD is excellent: the music, the playing, the recorded sound. Indeed, it is everything you could want in a CD of gorgeous chamber music, and chamber music of the first rank.

To start with the Capriccio - the third of the Four Pieces, op.81 - was a bright idea for, after a slow introduction, it is sprightly and energetic, full of tension and not a little angst (and this is a capriccio?) and with a surprise ending which will throw your whole perception of this supposedly delightful music out of kilter. Now you’re sitting on the edge of your seat wondering just what Mendelssohn will toss at you next.

The second string quartet, although an obviously youthful work, isn’t in any way a student piece - he might only have been 18 years old when he wrote it, but, in the Mendelssohnian scheme of things, he was already a mature composer by this time, for this work was preceded by the Octet in E flat in 1825 and the Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture of 1826. It’s quite astonishing just how quickly Mendelssohn served his compositional apprenticeship and became a major, and very professional, figure on the musical scene. If the music doesn’t have the same depth of feeling or emotion which fills the op.44 work recorded here, it is more than just a pretty and colourful essay in the quartet medium. What Mendelssohn hadn’t quite learned by this time was that there is a fine line between pathos and bathos, and he doesn’t quite manage to avoid the latter in moments (but only moments) of his slow movement. The scherzo is a fun two part piece with slightly heavy handed outer sections and a trio which is as light as anything this composer ever wrote. The finale displays a deeper sensibility than, at first, one might expect. There is a very serious, and slightly subdued, fugue in the middle of the movement, which adds to the pathos (most certainly only this here), and although there is some sparkling writing for the instruments there is a feeling of tragedy as the music and the ending is quite unsettling.

The Fugue which follows, although having a late opus number, is, in fact, contemporary with the A minor Quartet. It’s not as searching a piece as it would have been had it been contemporaneous with the Capriccio which started this disk, but it is a pleasant makeweight and is most welcome between the two bigger works.

The 5th Quartet is a work of Mendelssohn’s real maturity and it is as assured a work as he ever wrote. The first movement is a long Allegro vivace where Mendelssohn never lets the tension, or the pace, slip for a moment; what a splendid achievement it is! The ensuing scherzo is heavier than might be expected, perhaps imbued with a sense of desperation, hence the hectic quality of the music. Slow movement and finale deliver a real punch of emotion and excitement, and bring this great, and there can be no other word to describe this music, quartet to its end.

The New Zealand Quartet plays these works with wonderful insight and understanding and they are not afraid to take chances when necessary, but always in the service of the music. Also, they are unafraid when it comes to being straight forward, as in the Fugue, for there’s very little you can do with this particular piece except play it and the New Zealanders make no attempt to blow it up into a bigger piece. This is intelligent music-making. The recording is excellent, bright and clear and with a nice perspective on the four musicians. The notes, whilst brief, are good.

This is certainly well worth investigating, if you don’t know the music, and adding to your collection if you do. I look forward to hearing more of the New Zealand Quartet, perhaps in Haydn or Beethoven.

Bob Briggs