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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
String Quartet No. 2 in A minor Op.13 (1827) [30:10]
String Quartet No. 3 in D major Op.44 No.1 (1838) [30:46]
Andante sostenuto in E major Op.81 No.1 (1847) [5:41]
Scherzo in A minor Op.81 No.2 (1847) [4:12]
Escher Quartet (Adam Barnett-Hart and Aaron Boyd (violins), Pierre Lapointe (viola), Dane Johansen (cello))
rec. Potton Hall, Suffolk, September 2014
BIS BIS-1990 [71:51]

This is some of the most beautiful string quartet playing I have heard in many a day and it is superbly recorded. The Escher Quartet of New York, named after the Dutch graphic artist M.C. Escher (1898-1972), was founded ten years ago and in 2010-12 was in the BBC New Generation Artist scheme. I have not heard these players in concert for a while and must hasten to do so. They are recording all the Mendelssohn quartets for BIS and this is the second SACD in the series (see review of first release), with one to come.

The A minor Quartet, the earliest work in the form that Mendelssohn himself acknowledged, consciously pays homage to Beethoven’s great quartet in the same key, even borrowing thematic material – which, however, the young composer makes completely his own. All four movements are haunted by Mendelssohn’s Lied Frage, Op.9 No.1. The Adagio introduction is silkily played, with tactful touches of portamento, and the Eschers adopt quite a brisk tempo for the Allegro vivace – the music gains in febrile intensity at this speed but loses just a little of its Angst. The Pacifica Quartet take exactly the same tempo, so I am not going to pursue this point. For the second movement, with the strange marking Adagio non lento, the Eschers find a lovely legato, giving Mendelssohn’s harmonies plenty of time to register; and their rhythm is excellent in the fugato and the faster music. There is a nicely precise swing to the Intermezzo and they are also pinpoint-accurate in the fairy-style Trio. They do not dwell on the recitative at the start of the finale but spin away airily as Mendelssohn brings his quartet full circle: this is a difficult movement, with its tempo changes and repeated poignant recitatives, but they hold it together masterfully – they have clearly done a lot of work on it. The slow ending is beautifully judged.

Their tempo for the dramatically exciting opening of the D major Quartet is just right, fast enough to be brilliant but not too fast to be unintelligible and not slow enough to get bogged down. They take the exposition repeat, which pleases me – the Pacifica do not, and thereby do away with three minutes of music. I once had a furious (but friendly) argument with Klaus Tennstedt, over his omission of the repeat from the first movement of the Italian Symphony – in that case some excellent first-time music was lost. He was adamant that the exciting opening should not be heard too often. Perhaps some ensembles, including the Pacifica, feel the same way about this quartet, and I must admit that only a few first-time notes are lost. Even so, I like to hear the repeat. This is rather a concertante quartet, in the manner of Rolla and some of Spohr, so the biggest burden falls on the first violinist. Suffice it to say that Adam Barnett-Hart is fully equal to his virtuosic task. The Molto allegro vivace is a very busy movement but he and his colleagues clarify the texture well and their rhythm is always springy. They play the Menuetto and Trio absolutely beautifully, maintain this standard in the Andante espressivo and tear into the Presto con brio, without doing any violence to it.

The two movements from Op.81 are delightfully played, the variations in the Andante sostenuto gently – and in one case zestfully – delineated, the Scherzo infectiously rhythmic with a delicious ending. Throughout the disc, the playing is full of light and shade and intonation is miraculous. Contrapuntal passages never sound laboured. As I mentioned at the start, the recordings are everything they should be, with Thore Brinkmann responsible for production, engineering, editing and mixing. The players create their lustrous tones on violins by Gioffredo Cappa (c.1710) and Matteo Goffriller (1700), a 1983 viola by Christophe Landon which looks enormous in the cover picture and a 2011 cello by Stefan Valcuha. Presentation is quite good, although the German note seems clunkily translated into English: a word is even left out.

Tully Potter



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