Felix MENDELSSOHN-BARTHOLDY (1809-1847) Quartet No. 1 in E flat major Op. 12 (1829) [24:41]
Quartet in E flat major (1823) [27:16]
Quartet No. 4 in E minor Op. 44 No. 2 (1837) [27:11]
Escher String Quartet (Adam Barnett-Hart, Aaron Boyd (violin); Pierre Lapointe (viola); Dane Johansen (cello))
rec. 2014, Potton Hall, Suffolk, UK BIS BIS-1960 SACD [80:10]
The Escher String Quartet’s reputation has already been enhanced by their recordings of the quartets of Zemlinsky on Naxos (review), and with their lively international performing schedule I can only imagine that this new CD from BIS heralds a welcome increase in their contribution to the record catalogues. Mendelssohn’s string quartets are no strangers, but their refreshing and inventive character makes them justifiably popular. The Quartet in E flat major is an early work and remained unpublished in the composer’s lifetime. As the product of a student, Mendelssohn was at the time being taught by Carl Friedrich Zelter, this is a top quality creation, harking back to models from composers such as Haydn and Mozart, the final Fuga drawing on Mendelssohn’s admiration for J.S. Bach. While perfectly pleasant and highly disciplined, this is a work which never quite ‘takes off’ in the way that the numbered quartets can. Having it here as a central intermezzo to the First and Fourth quartets is a substantial diversion but not one for which you would always cross the road on a busy Friday afternoon.
The Quartet No. 1 in E flat major Op. 12 was actually written after the A minor Quartet Op. 13, and its seriousness of intent is clear from the outset, with a questioning slow introduction and extensively developed and weighty first movement. The second movement delivers light relief in the form of a transparent and flighty Canzonetta, while the Andante espressivo is both tender and passionate. The whole thing is topped off by an energetic Molto allegro e vivace which refers back to the first movement and gives the whole piece a satisfyingly cyclical feel.
The Quartet No. 4 in E minor Op. 44 No. 2 is actually the first of the three quartets Op. 44 in chronological terms, but such confusions make no difference to the nature and quality of the music, which has the most distinctive themes of the three in this selection. The uplifting first movement is followed by a Scherzo which “scurries past, artful and weightless in equal measure.” The Escher Quartet follows the composer’s instructions for the Andante, that it should be played “without dragging”, it song-like character not really plumbing the deepest of heartfelt depths but beautifully expressive nevertheless. Mendelssohn had only just married CÚcile Charlotte Sophie Jeanrenaud, and the optimistic energy of the final movement reflects his positive mood at the time.
All of these works are performed with immaculate skill and engaging musicality by the Escher Quartet, superbly recorded of course by the BIS recording team, who balance the presence of the player against the subtle Potton Hall acoustic perfectly. There are of course numerous other recordings of Mendelssohn’s string quartets out there. The New Zealand String Quartet is impressive on Naxos, their first volume on the Naxos complete set (review) including both the First and Fourth quartets in impressively expressive performances, but presented in rather a swimming-pool acoustic. The Cherubini Quartet’s cycle for EMI (review) has become something of a classic and is very nicely played indeed, with heart-on-sleeve warmth but an avoidance of sentimentality through compact directness of playing. Going further back there are the likes of the Bartholdy Quartet (review) which is recorded rather closely and sounds rather unrelenting and four-square these days. Michael Cookson’s review of the Emerson Quartet on Deutsche Grammophon and even more of the Henschel Quartet on Arte Nova are full of references and detailed comparisons.
With glorious SACD sound and the Escher Quartet’s stylish panache with their performances of these works I would be happy to put this recording near or at the top of my list of recommendations. Their sonic fingerprint with its compact vibrato reminds me a little of the Busch Quartet, a comparison I’m sure these players won’t mind being made.