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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 13 (1827) [30:42]
String Quartet No. 6 in F minor, Op. 80 (1847) [26:09]
Four Pieces, Op. 81 (1843-47) [19:53]
Elias String Quartet (Sara Bitlloch, David Grant, violins; Martin Saving, viola; Marie Bitlloch, cello)
rec. Potton Hall, Suffolk, 2006
ALTO ALC1303 [77:07]

Mendelssohn’s string quartets are gems of the quartet repertory, but for some reason they have taken something of a back seat both in the concert hall and on record. The inclusion here of two important minor-key masterworks separated by the Four Pieces of Op. 81 makes for a most satisfactory programme, particularly when the performance standard is of the highest thoughout.

The A minor Quartet, written when Mendelssohn was 18, is a response to the death of Beethoven, and his influence is heard at multiple points, as is the shadow of a song Mendelssohn wrote at around the same time, Ist es wahr?, Op. 9/1. The Elias’ performance of the Adagio first movement introduction is superb, marked by very expressive playing, particularly from the sweet-toned first violin. The Beethoven influence is clear (Mendelssohn had also been studying late Beethoven quartets at the time), but so is the Mendelssohnian interiorisation in the lovely, sighing gestures. Interesting that textures are remarkably complex in this first movement. The second movement, an “Adagio non lento”, is given in a performance shot through with concentration and full of held-breath pianissimi; there’s also some very well rendered contrapuntal workings. The Intermezzo is famous, and is heard in a fabulous performance. The finale begins almost angrily (the dry recording is highlighted here, unfortunately) but the latter part (an Adagio) is magnificently touching, especially in a performance such as this one, in which the control over instruments is well-nigh perfect.

The Four Pieces, Op. 81 include the Scherzo and Andante of an incomplete quartet. The Fugue in E flat that opens Op. 81, performed as in a whisper by the Elias Quartet, is most compelling, and moves to a shifting, restless “Capriccio” in E minor, whose second section (Allegro fugato, assai vivace) is given a performance of the utmost precision here, the different voices surfacing and disappearing into the texture again perfectly. The Theme and Variations third movement is superbly controlled, particularly the ending, while the final Scherzo is a remarkably sophisticated piece.

The F-Minor Quartet is a wonderful composition, a piece to absolutely blow out of the window any preconceptions of Mendelssohn as a merely “nice” composer.

The dry recording, characteristic of the recording’s origin (ASV) detracts a little, but the performance is beautifully shaded, dramatic and includes a fabulously sustained slow movement. First violinist Sara Bittloch’s booklet notes are a model of their kind – she has been given the space to expand at length on this music, and her comments are unfailingly enlightening. A most rewarding reissue, from every angle.

Colin Clarke



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