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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
String Quartet no.5 in E flat major, Op.44 no.3 (1837-8) [34:50]
Four Pieces for String Quartet, Op.81 (Capriccio in E minor (1843) [5:37]; Fugue in E flat major (1827) [5:00])
String Quartet no.6 in F minor, Op.80 (1847) [25:02]
Escher String Quartet
rec. May 2015, Potton Hall, Suffolk, UK
BIS BIS-2160 SACD [71:17]

This is the first time I’ve heard the Escher String Quartet and, on this evidence, they’re certainly a force to be reckoned with. This latest release from BIS completes their Mendelssohn Quartet cycle (reviews of Volume 1 ~ Volume 2). The previous two volumes garnered favourable reports from MusicWeb International colleagues. Former BBC New Generation Artists, they were founded in 2005, and are based in New York. They take their name from the Dutch graphic artist M.C. Escher ‘inspired by Escher’s method of interplay between individual components working together to form a whole’. Listening to these captivating performances, it’s obvious that they live up to this ideal. I see that they already have a Zemlinsky cycle under their belt, issued on Naxos (reviews of Volume 1 ~ Volume 2).

The present release has been carefully choreographed with the upbeat and affable String Quartet no.5 and the highly personal, emotionally-charged String Quartet no.6 bookending two of the four pieces from Op. 81, whose demeanour sits somewhere in between. It all makes for a satisfying experience. I share the sentiments of Tully Potter, who reviewed the second volume in the series, that this is some of the most ravishing quartet playing to have crossed my path.

Many regard the three Op. 44 Quartets as Mendelssohn’s most classical works, harking back to Haydn and Mozart. Although marked as number 3 of the set, the E flat was actually composed second. Well-crafted, it reflects a sense of well-being. The composer was enjoying success in his career and in his private life there was his recent marriage and the birth of a child. For me, it recalls the youthful Octet in its positive feelings, upbeat tenor, exuberance and optimism, even sharing the same key. The Eschers capture this life-enhancing spirit in their performance of the substantial first movement. The elfin lightness of the Scherzo conjures up his Midsummer Night’s Dream music. Everything is kept light, fleet of foot and delicate, and is dispatched with unruffled ease. In contrast, the slow movement overflows with fervent lyricism. The players pull out all the stops for the energetic and brisk finale. Its fun-loving character just boils over in this truly convivial performance.

The Four Pieces for String Quartet, Op. 81 were composed between 1827 and 1847. The Fugue in E flat major we have here is the earliest, written in 1827, and displays a contrapuntal fluency of considerable competence, with the Capriccio dating from 1843. The Escher Quartet offer the same level of commitment and attention to detail that they confer on the larger scores. The other two pieces from the set, Andante sostenuto in E major and Scherzo in A minor, can be found on volume 2.

The Op. 80 in F minor was Mendelssohn’s final foray into the string quartet medium, penned in 1847 following the death of his beloved sister Fanny. He himself was to die in November of that year at the age of thirty-eight. The mood is one of sadness and personal loss and this is eloquently portrayed in the Adagio, where the composer pours out all his grief in a lament for his deceased sister. The Escher’s turbocharged account of the first movement has to be one the finest you’re likely to encounter. It has febrile intensity, drive and excitement, whilst the urgent syncopations of the Scherzo generate unease and disquiet. The tender Adagio is fervent, and the Escher’s incandescent playing conveys compassion such as I’ve never heard matched. There’s tangible tension and emotional urgency in the well-managed finale.

This is highly accomplished playing in anyone's book. The BIS engineers have done a sterling job capturing the Escher's stunning performances with warmth and immediacy. This is aided by the sympathetic acoustic and ambience of Suffolk's Potton Hall which, in my experience, never seems to disappoint.

Stephen Greenbank



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