Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
String Quartets - Volume 3
String Quartet No.3 in D, Op.44/1 (1838) [31:44]
Tema con variazioni, Op.81/1 [6:12]
Scherzo, Op.81/2 [3:54]
String Quartet in E-flat, Op.‘0’ (1823) [26:50]
New Zealand String Quartet (Helene Pohl, Douglas Beilman (violins); Gillian Ansell (viola); Rolf Gjelsten (cello)
rec. St Anne’s Church, Toronto, Canada, 16-19 July 2008. DDD.
NAXOS 8.570003 [68:52]
This is the third and last volume in the Naxos series of Mendelssohn’s String Quartets. Of Volume 1 (8.570001, Nos. 1, 4 and 6), David Dunsmore wrote that it would not be his first choice, but that it provided a good introduction to the uninitiated - see review. Bob Briggs thought the second volume (8.570002, Nos. 2 and 5) well worth investigating and adding to one’s collection - see review. An earlier, also well-liked, Naxos set of recordings by the Aurora Quartet remains in the catalogue (8.55086/3, available separately).
If you don’t like reading detailed analyses but prefer to cut to the chase, those judgements apply equally well to the third volume. The early unnumbered Quartet ‘0’ and the shorter pieces may not have quite the cachet of the numbered works, but they are well worth hearing and Quartet No.3 certainly is: it’s reputed to have been Mendelssohn’s own favourite among the middle-period set, Op.44/1-3.
Two other recordings of the complete Mendelssohn Quartets are available at a price competitive with the New Zealand Quartet on Naxos. One of these comes from the Henschel Quartet on the budget Arte Nova label, available complete on 82876 64009 or separately. Michael Cookson made this his top recommendation overall in a comparative review of the sets available in 2005 - here - a view which has been endorsed in other quarters. Since then, in 2007, EMI have reissued a 3-CD set with the Cherubini Quartet, currently the least expensive of all the complete versions. I rated that set highly, though ultimately preferring the Henschel recordings - see review.
Of all the versions of Op.44/1 which Michael Cookson (hereafter MC) investigated, the Emerson Quartet are the slowest, at 12:50. By an odd coincidence, that’s exactly the time taken by the New Zealand Quartet (hereafter NZQ) on the new CD. I have considerable respect for the Emerson’s performances of these quartets, heard off-air from the Wigmore Hall - I have yet to hear their DG recording - so it’s not surprising that I thought the NZQ right on target here. MC described the Emerson on DG as wonderfully natural and unforced in this movement, which also applies to their Wigmore performance, and I see no reason not to apply the same epithets to the NZQ.
Having given them high praise in the opening movement, MC proceeded to make the Emerson his first choice for this work, a view which I’m very happy to endorse on the basis of those Wigmore Hall performances: I really must investigate their CDs, perhaps in a forthcoming Download Roundup. Having matched them exactly in the first movement, the NZQ are a trifle slower than the Emerson in the remainder of the work, but I never felt their tempi to be slow, even in the presto con brio finale - they may not be quite as presto as their rivals, but there’s only a few seconds in it (7:03 against 6:58) and there’s plenty of brio on offer. This movement would not have been out of place as part of the Midsummer Night’s Dream music, as the NZQ performance makes plain.
The Cherubini Quartet are rather faster than the NZQ in the opening movement (12:23 against 12:50), though I didn’t feel when I reviewed their set that they are too fast, nor do I now. At their faster tempo they bring out what I described as the brightness, liveliness and exuberance very well, but so does the new performance - to which I might add that the NZQ strike me as just a trifle more thoughtful, by which I don’t mean stodgy or gloomy.
The Naxos notes single out the ‘suave’ minuet and ‘particularly expressive’ andante, the second and third movements respectively, epithets particularly suited to the Emerson (Wigmore Hall) and to the NZQ here. Overall, I’m inclined to maintain my preference for the Emersons throughout Op.44/1, with the New Zealanders runners-up and the Cherubini a by no means disgraced third: I can happily live with all three, so I shall have a hard time deciding which to ditch - with an overflowing collection, I can’t keep all three.
The Cherubini is 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. The NZQ are actually only very little slower - both versions work very well. In the finale, too, the Cherubini pace the music very well, occasionally pausing to savour the delights along the way: they and the NZQ are within a whisker of each other.
There are no problems choosing between the Cherubini and New Zealand in the rest of the programme: the EMI set doesn’t include the youthful (14-year-old) composer’s un-numbered Quartet or any of the Op.81 pieces. The Emersons do - they even offer a listener’s guide to Op.81/1, which they describe as ‘peace of mind restored and youthful joy rediscovered’. They take 5:38 for that work against the NZQ’s 6:12. Even before I checked those comparative timings, I felt that the New Zealand was making slightly heavy weather of the piece - not quite enough of the Emerson’s ‘youthful joy’ - but it isn’t one of my favourite bits of Mendelssohn, so I may have been allowing personal taste to cloud my judgement.
The NZQ version of the Scherzo, Op.81/2, is also a little too deliberate for my taste, but, again, not to the extent that it would rule the new CD out of the running.
I have left out one complete set of the Mendelssohn String Quartets, including Opus ‘0’ and the four Op.81 works, from the Coull Quartets on Hyperion CDS44051/3, because it’s no longer available except as a download. The individual CDs remain available from the Archive Service at full price but, for those prepared to download, the complete set remains available in mp3 or lossless flac for an attractive £14.99 - here. I plan to include a review of the complete set in a forthcoming Download Roundup but include here a brief note of their performances of the works on the new Naxos CD.
Their tempo for the opening movement of Op.44/1 almost exactly splits the difference between the Cherubini on the one hand and the NZQ and Emerson on the other. Their expressive playing is never over-exuberant - perhaps not quite exuberant enough for music which I’ve already likened to the Midsummer Night’s Dream music, though I don’t mean that as a serious criticism. I usually go for the lossless downloads from Hyperion - they are offered at the same price as the mp3 - but I tried the mp3 for the Mendelssohn and found it more than acceptable.
The Coulls are noticeably faster in the minuet second movement - on paper the fact that they take 5:13 against the NZQ’s 5:44 suggests that they are too hurried for un poco allegretto, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating or, rather, the listening without preconceptions, a test which they pass comfortably for me. The third movement andante is as espressivo as I could wish, at a pace very similar to that adopted by the Cherubini and NZQ. The Hyperion performance of the finale is a touch less presto than its rivals, but there’s plenty of brio on offer.
The Coull Quartet’s tempi for Op.81/1 and Op.81/2 confirm my impression that the New Zealanders are a touch slow here.
Which brings me back to that early Quartet in E-flat. The Coull Quartet offer a very straightforward performance, one which has been described by some as not claiming too much for the work, a pretty apt description. Naxos do make something of a claim for what they claim on the rear insert as ‘strikingly accomplished’; Keith Anderson in the notes, in more scholarly mode, calls the work ‘a remarkable achievement’. It’s roughly contemporary with the better-known String Symphonies, charming works, which I must admit are only occasional visitors to my CD player, and I’m not sure that I shall wish to hear this quartet very often. It was canny of Naxos to couple this work with the much more desirable Op.44/1.
Hyperion place it first on CD 1, which is surely better than Naxos’s decision to position it last. There seems to be a gulf of two minutes on paper between the two tempi for the opening movement, with the New Zealand apparently slower, but, in the event, the NZQ give a more sprightly performance, so I can only assume that they include repeats which the Coull omits. (I don’t have score of this work, unfortunately.) Honours are about even in the second movement but in the minuetto third movement and the fuga finale the Coull Quartet are slightly faster than their New Zealand competitors, though I didn’t feel that either performance did less than justice to these movements. Here again, as in Op.44/1, the Hyperion mp3 sound is much more than adequate.
The Naxos recording, too, is very good throughout and the notes are all that Keith Anderson’s authorship guarantees. All in all, the new release is sufficient to make me plan to investigate one or both of those earlier New Zealand Quartet CDs of Mendelssohn.
The Cherubinis on EMI are the least expensive of the ‘complete’ sets at round £9.50 in the UK for 3 CDs, and the performances are well worth having, but they are not competitive with the new Naxos recording because they are not really complete, omitting Op.‘0’ and Op.81/1-2. The Emerson Quartet 4-CD set on DG is out of the UK catalogue at present, except as an MP3 download from Amazon or iTunes, but it must surely be due to return in Mendelssohn’s bi-centennial year, and, it is to be hoped, at an attractive price. It may be worth waiting to see but, in the meantime, you could do much worse than lay out the small price required for the new Naxos release and its predecessors.
Brian Wilson 

The completion of a recommendable series of recordings