Edvard Grieg completed one and a half string quartets, presented on this excellent recording by the Meccore String Quartet, a Polish ensemble that has played together for ten years. On the basis of this performance (the first I have heard), the Meccore plays with impressively precise articulation and a loving attention to dynamic detail. The Meccore also approaches the music rather aggressively, an approach which serves Grieg well.
Grieg’s completed string quartet, Op. 27, seems not to enjoy the popularity one might expect of a dramatic piece by a famous composer, full of memorable, sometimes heart-on-sleeve tunes. It has a distinctively lush sound, which resembles nothing else in the quartet literature.
The Meccore offers a big performance of this big work. They project a lot of sound, but also relish in some wonderful pianissimos. They maximize the drama and urgency of Grieg’s generous melodies by subtly drawing attention to destabilizing elements of line and rhythm, and heightening contrasts of volume and timbre. The Meccore presents a version of Grieg that may not be for everyone, but which I found quite satisfying. They brought to mind previously unnoticed links between Grieg and Janáček, where musical fragments can be unsettling instead of steady, and where the performers push the intensity of the work to the point of occasional creepiness. This seems especially true in the menacing middle section, which offsets the sweetness of the Romanze, and the final Saltarello is danced not by happy Italian peasants, but by upset Norwegian trolls. Near the end is an anguished descending passage which might be at home in a Dies Irae.
The Emerson Quartet’s recording is vivid, swifter, and emotionally more distant. Although it is paired with Sibelius, the performance brings to mind links to Dvořák. Another version by the Leipzig String Quartet is slower in pace, with more beautiful sound, especially with Grieg’s organ-like sonorities. The Leipzig’s interpretation is a little staid, lacking the brilliance of the Emerson or the wonderfully neurotic precision of the Meccore.
Quartet No. 2 is a weaker work. After struggling with the piece for over a decade, Grief only completed two movements before his death. A restless opening Allegro is something of a let-down after listening to the first quartet. The following Allegro Scherzando is the best part, especially the trio. Grieg left drafts for two more movements. His friend, Dutch composer Julius Röntgen, completed these sketches, but apparently with insufficiently Grieg-like style. The Meccore cobbles together a performable text by adding to the two completed movements a fugue, written when Grieg was a student. The fugue is engaging, and the Meccore plays it with gritty intensity, but it does change the tone of the piece. The composite work is not especially coherent, but two of the three movements are quite good.
The rather closely miked recording is up to MDG’s high standards of clarity.