When I first heard Quatuor Ebène in 2006 at the Lake District
Summer Music International Festival, England they were fresh-faced,
relative newcomers to the international stage. Earlier in 2004 they
had won the prestigious ARD international competition in Munich. The
next year they secured victory in the Forberg-Schneider Foundation’s
Belmont Prize. Immediately I was struck by the smoothness of their
playing which had a polished elegance. In truth their stylishness
probably came at the expense of a harder more decisive edge that they
now have available.
With this new Virgin Classics release of quartets from Felix Mendelssohn
and his sister Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel it was fascinating to hear
the undoubted progress that Quatuor Ebène had made. Felix Mendelssohn
was devoted to his older sister, Fanny a pianist and highly talented
composer in her own right whom he described as his “guiding
light”. Poignantly close together in death as in life I
have visited the graves of these soul-mates who lie adjacent to each
other at the Dreifaltigkeitsfriedhof I (Trinity Cemetery I) in the
Kreuzberg district of Berlin.
Felix Mendelssohn composed his String Quartet No. 2 in A minor,
Op. 13 when he was eighteen in 1827 the year of Beethoven’s
death. Although the work has a later opus number it was actually composed
two years earlier than the String Quartet No. 1 in E flat major,
Op.12. It is not surprising that this early period work uses the string
quartets of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven as stylistic models. Lyricism
and high drama combine in this highly expressive opening movement
marked Adagio - Allegro vivace. Passionately interpreted by
Quatuor Ebène, gone is the gentle romanticism that so often
describes Felix Mendelssohn’s writing; this is playing of unadulterated
full-blooded romanticism. With a performance of such yearning quality
at times it felt as if the music was weeping. It was impossible not
to feel the intensity of the playing which squeezes out every last
drop of emotion. The second movement marked Adagio non lento
is a complex structure with a dramatic climax. With the player’s
displaying remarkable concentration the poignancy they convey is powerful
yet feels distinctly introspective. There is light, calm and affectionate
playing in the third movement Intermezzo: Allegretto con
moto with its swiftly agile trio section. The Finale: Presto
returns to the emotional world of the opening movement. Incisive and
ferocious playing from Quatuor Ebène is infused with vast reserves
of virile energy.
The String Quartet No. 6 in F minor, Op. 80 from 1847 is a
work full of striking contrasts in a way that Felix Mendelssohn had
not expressed before. Remarkable for its emotional force the score
is deeply moving, tragic and full of dissonance. Here we leave behind
the elves and fairies for the realities of the grown-up world. This
poignant and turbulently charged score serves as a fitting elegy to
the death of his older sister and a reflection of his personal grief;
he was himself to die a few months later. In the opening Allegro
vivace assai Quatuor Ebène play with a sort of nervous
anger, mixed with extremes of elation and despair. The Scherzo
feels intensely acrimonious together with a sense of torment and the
A flat major Adagio is almost unbearably poignant. Deep
sobs of anguish rack the Finale: Allegro molto with
the players conveying fury and sorrow.
In the last decade or so recordings of the complete Felix Mendelssohn
String Quartets have experienced quite a surge in popularity.
There are several high quality digital sets that I have enjoyed. The
complete set that I reach for first is from the Henschel Quartet especially
for their noble playing; so sparkling, exhilarating and expertly performed
throughout. I have the three disc set on Arte Nova 82876 64009 2;
which sadly is currently unavailable. However, the remaining Henschel
accounts with the exception of the String Quartet in E flat major
(1823) are available on 3 separate volumes: Vol. 1 Arte Nova 74321
96521 2 (Op. 12; Op. 80); Vol. 2 Arte Nova 82876 57744 2 (Op. 13;
Op. 44/3); Vol. 3 Arte Nova 82876 60848 2 (Op. 44/1; Op. 44/2; Op.
81). The Emerson Quartet’s complete 4 disc set is splendid for
its power and classy playing. Recorded in 2003/04 at the American
Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City the Emerson set includes
the Octet for strings, Op.20 on Deutsche Grammophon 4775370.
The three other complete collections that I also highly rate are:
the three disc set from the Pacifica Quartet on Cedille CDR 90000
082 (USA import); the 3 disc set from the Talich Quartet on Calliope
CAL3311-3 and from the Leipzig Quartet a 5 disc set that includes
arrangements of the First and Fifth Symphonies, The
Hebrides and Ruy Blas overtures for piano four hands with
violin and cello on MDG3071571. The Leipzig accounts are also available
individually on four volumes: Volume 1 MDG 307 1055-2 (Op. 12; Op.
13; Volume 2 MDG 307 1168-2 (Op. 44/1; Op. 44/2; Op. 81: Fuga,
Capriccio); Volume 3 MDG 307 1056-2 (Op. 44/3; Op. 80; Op.
81: Scherzo, Tema con variazioni) and Volume 4 MDG 307
1057-2 (E flat major 1823; Octet for strings, Op.20).
In addition the Eroica Quartet using authentic performance practice
has completed their survey on three volumes for the Harmonia Mundi
label: Volume 1 HMU907245 (Op. 12; Op. 13; E flat major 1823);
Volume 2 HMU907287 (Op. 44/1; Op. 44/2) and Volume 3 HMU907288 (Op.
44/3; Op. 80; Op. 81: Tema con variazioni, Scherzo and
Capriccio without the Fuga).
Prohibited from pursuing the equivalent musical career as her brother
Felix by the constraints of the gender conventions of the time Fanny
Mendelssohn wrote around 400 scores and managed to publish a small
number of scores. In 1834, and now a married woman, Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel
composed her String Quartet in E flat major at her Berlin home.
This was Fanny’s only work in the quartet genre and one in which
she acknowledged her debt to the quartets of Beethoven. It is an imaginative
work high on lyrical elegance which the Ebène clearly savour.
The poignant Adagio ma non troppo contains music of a distinctly
elegant quality. Here I was strongly reminded of the second movement
of Felix’s Quartet A minor, Op.13. Rhythmic and decidedly
memorable, the Scherzo comes across as the work of a brilliantly
assured composer. The intensely concentrated third movement Romanze
has a somewhat reserved quality and a distinct tinge of melancholy.
At times it felt as if I was intruding on Fanny’s deeply private
thoughts. Brisk and upbeat in character, the Finale marked
Allegro molto vivace is such extrovert music which is put across
with characteristic vibrancy.
This disc has been splendidly if closely recorded and makes indispensable
listening for chamber music lovers.