Out of the great Austro-German composers for my money, Mendelssohn is the least acclaimed. Apart from a handful of key works I don't often see his works in the concert hall – at least not as regularly as they deserve. Only a handful of compositions have kept Mendelssohn's name in the spotlight: the Violin Concerto
and Midsummer Night's Dream
incidental music, Octet
and Reformation symphonies
, Hebrides Overture
), the oratorio Elijah
and the popular hymn O for the wings of a dove
. Thankfully Mendelssohn's prolific output has been far better served in the record catalogues.
Particularly neglected in relation to its quality is Mendelssohn's excellent body of chamber music. Although the string quartets and the pair of piano trios are probably the scores most likely to be encountered I can't remember when I last saw a recital programme including the cello sonatas and variations concertantes, violin sonatas and string sextet. Chamber music was a passion for Mendelssohn throughout a spectacular career that placed him at the forefront of Austro-German music during the 1830s and 1840s.
The market for recordings of Mendelssohn's complete works for string quartet is now extremely crowded and competitive with several sets of the highest quality in the catalogue. Here on Erato the Berlin based Artemis Quartet present three of the string quartets: one from his teenage years, one from his late twenties and another from the final months before his death that shortly followed the demise of his beloved sister Fanny.
Since the foundation of the Artemis Quartet in 1989 it has had five personnel changes with cellist Eckart Runge the only member remaining from the original line-up. Leader Vineta Sareika is relatively new having replaced Natalia Prishepenko in 2012. Often critical personnel changes such as this can critically affect the quality of a quartet but on this evidence the Artemis has maintained its elevated level of performance.
The first work on the Artemis double set is the String Quartet No. 3 in D major, Op. 44/1. Mendelssohn completed it in the summer of 1838. Said to be Mendelssohn's favourite it uses the bravura key of D major. Mendelssohn wrote of it to the violinist Ferdinand David, whose ensemble premièred the Quartet in 1839 “I have finished my third quartet in D major and I like it very much. I do hope it will be to your liking too. But I almost believe it will for it is more impassioned than the others and more rewarding for the musicians.” An outstanding feature throughout is the brilliant running virtuosity required of the first violin.
Lengthy at twelve and a half minutes, the opening movement marked Molto allegro vivace
exudes brilliance and exuberance — light, lively and bracing in nature. Initially the Artemis feels slightly nervy - a touch more character and vivacity would help. As the players settle down the performance becomes highly compelling. In the second movement Mendelssohn moves a step backward and substitutes a Menuetto
for a Scherzo
-proper. This dreamy and exquisitely melodious movement is rather antique-sounding and somewhat rococo
. This is well-mannered, refined music with considerable prominence given to the first violin. There's highly sensitive playing from leader Vineta Sareika using her Joseph Guadagnini (1793). She is in splendid form. Magically textured, the third movement Andante expressive ma con moto
is delicately scored and charmingly harmonised. Here the pace is slowed to create a gentle ‘song without words'. In the relaxed mood of the Andante
we have a welcome respite from the two previous movements with the playing of the Artemis serving as refreshing balm. I am struck by the agreeably delicate and judiciously paced playing. The spirited final Presto con brio
is structured with ingenious counterpoint. The same snappy and rhythmic buoyancy is encountered that also fills the concluding movement of Mendelssohn's famous Violin Concerto
. Like the quartet's opening movement the Finale
concludes the work in a similar spirit and with sonorous brilliance. What I particularly enjoy is this fresh and spirited playing with its strong sense of spontaneity.
The Emerson on Deutsche Grammophon is my premier selection for this quartet. They deliver wonderfully polished and expressive playing. The blend of tone achieved is nothing short of astonishing. The Henschel Quartet on BMG/Arte Nova also invite admiration - especially in the final two movements. Their vitality and refined playing merits joint second position. My other joint second is the strongly conceived performance from the Talich Quartet on Calliope. They are consistently thoughtful and searching. For its consistently satisfying playing the Pacifica Quartet on Cedille is another well worth considering.
The String Quartet No. 6 in F minor,
Op. 80 — a work full of striking contrasts — is untypical of Mendelssohn's output in general. In 1847, with only months to live, the composer gave heartfelt expression to his shattering grief over the sudden death in 1847 of his beloved sister and soul-mate Fanny, the talented pianist and composer. For many weeks after Fanny's death her devastated brother was incapable of any kind of work. Having retreated to Switzerland for both physical and mental recuperation Mendelssohn composed his String Quartet No. 6
. This poignant and turbulently charged score serves as a fitting musical lament. In it one hears the heart-wrenching pain of Mendelssohn's personal grief. Amazing for its emotional force, this music is deeply moving, tragic and full of dissonance, boldly exceeding the formal and expressive limits within which Mendelssohn had previously confined himself. Here we leave behind the fantasy world of elves, fairies and visionary landscapes and join humanity with the composer's customary sense of emotional restraint disintegrating.
The opening Allegro vivace assai
immediately sets the sombre mood and is cast in a serious manner worthy of Beethoven. Here the Artemis is highly charged and exciting. They play with liberal helpings of spirit and vitality. It would be misleading to call the second movement a Scherzo
as it contains so little in the way of cheer and pleasure. The movement is designated Allegro assai
and is punctuated with jarring syncopated rhythms.
Again there is something rather Beethovenian about this. Clearly at one with the complex rhythmic changes the poised Artemis provides a suitably bristling and unsettling interpretation. The intensely lyrical third movement Adagio
is a sort of elegy that has been fittingly subtitled as a ‘Requiem for Fanny'. Mendelssohn was renowned for his ‘songs without words' and this movement is cast nicely in that mould. This is such tasteful and subtly controlled playing by the Artemis and is heard in a heart-felt and sensitive reading. The final Allegro molto
revisits the turbulence of the first two movements; namely the agitated tremolos of the first movement and the jarring syncopations of the second.
There is unmistakable aggression here, as if the composer was working through the anger phase of his complex and unbearable grief. A fresh and squally feel conveys a furious mood of restlessness and uncertainty.
My first choice recommendation in the String Quartet No. 6
, Op. 80 is from the magnificent Henschel Quartet, This is primarily on account of their polished craftsmanship and winning communication. This music runs through the blood of the Munich-based Henschel and this interpretation demonstrates a real unanimity of vision between the players as well as scrupulous attention to the detail. Second choice is the version from the Aurora Quartet on Naxos. They give an excellent and powerful performance. The Aurora is able expertly to differentiate and convey the contrasting moods. I also often play the highly satisfying accounts by the Pacifica on Cedille and the Emerson on Deutsche Grammophon.
The final work on this double CD set is the String Quartet No. 2 in A minor
, Op. 13. This was composed when Mendelssohn was just eighteen in 1827, the year of Beethoven's death. Although this 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 and abounds in references to Beethoven. The String Quartet No. 2
is immediately appealing and packed with melody and invention. Given Mendelssohn's young age it is a mature work with his individual voice clearly discernable. By this time Mendelssohn had already composed two masterworks: the Overture to a Midsummer Night's Dream
and the Octet for strings
. The String Quartet No. 2
is highly contrasted in mood and provides a degree of passion and drama not normally associated with this composer.
Lyricism and high drama combine in the intensely expressive opening Adagio - Allegro Vivace
with prominent writing for the first violin. Lyrical melodies, rich harmonies and symmetrical phrases are a feature of this passionate and vigorous movement. This is all lovingly played by the alert Artemis. The second movement is a complex structure and has a dramatic climax. Sensitivity is the key word in the Adagio non lento
with the Artemis delivering a gravely beautiful performance of real poignancy. Here is torment and aching sorrow. In the Intermezzo
: Allegretto con moto
the elfin mood of the speedy Trio
is notable and the song-like Intermezzo
approaches absolute musical perfection. I was struck by the players' lightness of touch and elegance seamlessly shifting to spirited playing. The emotional world of the opening movement returns in the Finale
with the influence of Beethoven again apparent in its stormy recitative
accompaniment. This is one of the most complex movements the teenage composer ever wrote. Here the Artemis provides bold, thrilling, characterful and stormily turbulent playing. The music seems to evoke a traveler nervously seeking shelter under a large tree in torrential rain all the while struck through with fear of an imminent thunderstorm. I especially admire the beautiful solo from leader Vineta Sareika on her Guadagnini.
The String Quartet No. 2
is especially well served by many superb recordings. My first choice is the terrific account from the Bartholdy Quartet on Arts Music — excitement personified, yet allowing one to imagine the spirit of Haydn and Mozart. Hold onto your hats! This rather close recording may be slightly off-putting at times. The Henschel on BMG/Art Nova brings the work splendidly to life and is my joint second choice. They play as one and with a sense of unbridled music-making in a reading that is classical in style and brimful of character. My joint second choice is the account from the Talich on Calliope. Superbly and intuitively performed this displays enviable control and rhythmic precision. Although very different to the Bartholdy I would not wish to replace the peerless period-instrument interpretation from Christophe Coin's Quatuor Mosaïques on Naïve. Also worthy of consideration on period instruments is the satisfying account from the Eroica on Harmonia Mundi.
For those looking for complete sets of the Mendelssohn string quartets there are several versions I greatly admire all of which will provide satisfaction. If forced to choose just one set my first recommendation is the Henschel Quartet on BMG/Arte Nova. This may well have been deleted but it is so exceptional that I would suggest looking for a copy on an online auction site. Other excellent sets are from the Emersons on Deutsche Grammophon (including the Octet), the Pacifica on Cedille and the Leipzig on MDG. Sets from the Talich on Calliope, Bartholdy on Arts Music, and Aurora on Naxos are all well played too if maybe a touch uneven in quality. Although I have tended to concentrate on modern instrument sets, also worthy of consideration is the convincing complete cycle on period instruments from the Eroica Quartet on Harmonia Mundi.
Throughout this Erato release the Artemis display fine musicianship. This they balance with considerable natural impetus and impressive security of ensemble. Notably they are always sensitive to the demands of Mendelssohn's writing. A small grumble is that disc two contains only a single work leaving room to have accommodated another. There is an interesting six minute publicity video for this Mendelssohn release (a multi-cam view) containing interviews and snippets of the Artemis available on YouTube