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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
String Quartets - Volume 1
String Quartet No. 1, Op. 12 (1829) [24:01]
String Quartet No. 6, Op. 80 (1847) [23:50]
String Quartet No. 5, Op. 44, No. 3 (1837-38) [34:33]
Doric String Quartet
rec. Potton Hall, Dunwich, UK, 2017
CHANDOS CHAN20122 [52:02 + 34:33]

Mendelssohn begins his String Quartet 1 with an Adagio introduction of fair length: it takes 1:13 but seems longer owing to its serious, reflective and caring intent. In the hands of the Doric Quartet it’s also warm and expressive with first violin Alex Redington’s portamento noticeable in the leap of its opening and then next phrase. In his helpfully detailed notes in the CD booklet Bayan Northcott suggests this introduction is modelled on that of Beethoven’s Harp Quartet which I’d accept, the value being it creates a serious backcloth for the progression of Mendelssohn’s work. The main body of the first movement can then be more relaxed, aided by its first phrase and its repetition made light of by a tail of falling quavers respectively on viola and cello alone, both dovetailed with the following phrase. The theme expands quietly yet with an underlying conviction, then trippingly. The Dorics show the music to be now fastidious, now impulsive. It next enters a musing phase out of which emerges a second theme (tr. 1, 2:04) to which the Dorics bring a bashful beauty. At the end of the exposition, Northcott suggests, comes another practice after Beethoven, feigning to repeat it but soon transforming into the development, as Beethoven in his Quartet op. 59, no.1. The second violin now introduces a new theme (3:07), the third of the movement, which is repeated and the emotional temperature raised by the first violin. The dying down of this development and soft, sweet recapitulation of the opening theme brings a lovely tenderness from the Dorics, a realization of that theme’s value not felt earlier. The third theme’s recapitulation, in the coda, is marked tranquillo, but again on the second violin in low tessitura it has a melancholy brooding quality which needs rescuing by the first violin with the first theme soon selectively trimmed to the happy recall of its opening six notes, sweetly and consolingly distilled.

I compared the 2014 SACD recording, also made at Potton Hall, by the Escher String Quartet (BIS-1960). Their introduction is more solemn in its intent concentration and the later crescendos by the viola are very striking. The Dorics are more smilingly expressive and evenly balanced. The main body of the movement is more formally phrased by the Eschers yet lightly articulated: I prefer the Dorics’ impulsive sweep. The Eschers’ attention to the ritenuto just before the recapitulation and gradual return to the previous tempo is more apparent, but the Dorics’ more subtle handling is more magical. The Eschers’ third theme recapitulation is richer, darker grained, the first violin’s response a noticeably blithe contrast; but the Dorics’ more troubled third theme creates the need for the first violin to be quiet and sweet, as marked, to assuage.

Northcott writes that the second movement Canzonetta is Mendelssohn’s substitute for the expected Scherzo. I’d suggest it’s also a Scherzo in disguise. The Dorics give us a trim, playful opening section but the key of G minor creates a lugubrious element, especially in the viola’s wailing, sustained notes before returning to the rest of the pack. The second strain is from the Dorics a mincing dance and you feel Mendelssohn is relishing the comedy of how long he can spin it out. The central section is a fast Trio with the Mendelssohn trademark of feathery semiquaver runs tweaked here by occasional dissonance in the bass drone. His elaborate transition back to the opening section lends that a stylishly overbearing sorrow in its final appearance while its soft farewell, both admirably neat and wistful, is gorgeously realized by the Dorics. Timing at 3:44 to the Dorics’ 4:03, the Eschers are more dapper in the opening section but I feel its underlying malaise thereby gets short-changed. Their Trio is noticeably staccato, as marked, but the Dorics achieve a more telling pianissimo and the Eschers’ faster tempo brings for me an unduly hectic bustle.

The Andante espressivo third movement (tr. 3) is almost as compact as the second. It begins from the Dorics in rich, warm, ruminative manner, the melody in the first violin but supported by the sympathetic companionship of the other instruments. But at 1:18 the first violin has a recitative-like con fuoco outburst, with the other instruments’ occasional chords responding in shock. Just as quickly the first violin sinks back into tranquillity, time for more rumination but now soon settling contented as all instruments have a slowing of tempo and diminuendo, beautifully shaped here by the Dorics. As in the first movement, the return of the opening theme now seems more valuable, but here also more dramatic as it develops a higher tessitura, emphatic accents, dynamic contrasts and writhing semiquaver passages for all instruments. After a further solo star turn from the first violin, an extended balmy final rest. Timing at 4:58 to the Dorics’ 4:17, the Eschers’ more expansive approach for me suits this movement less well. They play beautifully, with a darker grained tone than the Dorics and there’s more detail from the accompanying instruments, but I felt they were more keen to signal their individual sufferings than the collective accord that comes from the Dorics. So as a group they lack the Dorics’ warmth and melting becalming, while the Eschers’ dramatization of the later repeated material, especially the semiquaver passages, seems more studied than experienced.

The finale enters without a break, two fortissimo chords destroying the third movement’s peace. So, as Northcott suggests, it’s appropriate to regard that movement as an introduction to the finale. But whereas the music following the introduction in the first movement was more relaxed, this is fiery and precipitate with stormy loud and unquiet soft, shadowy material. The second theme (tr. 4, 1:38), marked dolce tranquillo offers brief respite. The Dorics give it a furtive quality, as if sketching consolation and warmth they are unconvinced is possible and finishing in soft, leaping sighs before a parade of sforzandi and a fortissimo con fuoco passage confirm the prevailing angst. Mendelssohn’s get-out is ingenious and effective: the third theme of the first movement returns, as there, on the second violin. The storm responds and then there’s the marvellous sleight-of-hand of a magniloquent declamatory chordal passage (5:43), a heightened recall of earlier development material which returns the work to its home key and warmth. Thereafter not only does that first movement third theme return, now softly and expressively in the first violin’s upper register, but also its first theme, very sweetly and tenderly here from the Dorics’ first violin, so we welcome back Mendelssohn’s initial inspiration like an old friend, as we do his first movement’s gentle coda, a fine lulling from the Dorics. The Eschers, only a little more expansive than the Dorics in the finale, timing at 8:18 to 8:04, present it with a compelling, crisp tension, an emphatic denouement to the work, married to structural clarity which takes away a little of the Dorics’ angst while making individual instrument contributions clearer. The Eschers’ second theme has a smoother, warmer certainty. Their chordal declamation is spine-tingling in its tautness, after which the first movement material is sunnily welcomed, their first violin, Adam Barnett-Hart, now gorgeously applying portamento, but without the Dorics’ feeling of peaceful repose.
String Quartet 6, subtitled ‘Requiem for Fanny’ after the death of his sister is Mendelssohn in turmoil. It begins with stabbing sforzandi in viola and cello soon taken up by all who also have a baying tremolando. A tender second theme (tr. 5, 0:33) recalls a calmer period, soon dismissed for more agitation. But the third theme, beginning on a sleek high E flat on first violin (1:17) proves a more sustained reminiscence of gently shining, happy times and is especially comely in its recapitulation. Yet it is dispatched by a fourth theme in the coda (7:09), at the start a unison declamation riposte to the second and third themes as if to say such happiness is now all over and done with. The Dorics, by turns mettlesome and soulful, present this coda theme in a kind of ecstatic fury.

The Eschers recorded this quartet on SACD in 2015, also at Potton Hall (BIS-2160). Timing at 7:05 to the Dorics’ 7:40 their somewhat faster view of the Allegro vivace assai marking I find more compelling, its structure more apparent. The opening is more urgent and fraught, the second theme warm but soon dismissed as we’re hurled once more into the prevailing turmoil. The third theme poignantly tries to salvage some beauty, but again we’re hurled onward, the repetitions at the end of its recapitulation a mix of yearning and writhing. The Eschers deliver the coda theme with a bright, searing frenzy. That said I wouldn’t want to be without the Dorics’ more memorable attention to the nostalgic recalls, the second theme lingered lovingly over with a reluctance but discipline to dismiss. In their more delicate and winsome third theme you can picture Fanny and its late repetition is all happy memory.

The Dorics present the second movement Scherzo as a gloomy dance, its sforzandi show its determination, but the careful observation of the syncopation too drags it down, a dance from someone with a limp, yet then a close to the first strain that light-footedly floats, so a healthier, or another, character. This latter feature is developed in the second strain, so much that I could imagine Fanny dancing with the sensitive touches of portamento from Alex Redington, while the surrounding main body material is bitter and fierce. The Trio is all low register, subterranean, perhaps sepulchral stuff, but is the viola and cello opening nevertheless smiling, even if with a grimace? I think so, because as it continues with a shadowy first violin melody it becomes more nurturing. If this Trio is the ‘grey upon grey’ Mendelssohn termed his state of mind at the time, its return as the coda suggests it has attained acceptance that grey, not black, is the best that can be hoped for. The Allegro assai marking is again treated faster by the Eschers, timing this movement at 4:14 to the Dorics’ 5:58. This makes for a more impetuous, fiery Scherzo but then lacks the Dorics’ capability of making the development of the lighter material a happy recall. It even acquires a waspish tinge: is this a dance of death? Their Trio seems more sinister.

We move from F minor to A flat major for a third movement Adagio (tr. 7) which is an affectionate memorial. The first violin begins and often returns with a downward leap of a sigh, but it’s one of grateful recollection, while the entries from 1:11 in turn by first violin, second violin and viola picture a community commemorating. There’s much supportive imitation between the instruments. Often wistful and delicate, from 5:22 the Dorics show us a cantabile richness and rigour as if gazing out softly at earlier sensitive experiences and then the texture briefly becomes more densely affirmative before an exquisite close. The memory is savoured in a measured, contemplative manner. The Eschers, timing the movement at 7:52 to the Dorics’ 8:02, give a poised account, more dramatized and pointed rhythmically and dynamically. The really loud passages and, from the first violin high ones, in the Dorics’ recording from 4:06 to 4:55, are more passionate than the Dorics, but the latter are fittingly fervent here. Overall for me the Eschers’ account is less felt, more considered. From the Dorics, whose dynamic contrasts are also sensitive, there’s more warmth, breathing space and a wonderful sense of tranquil contemplation.

The first theme of the finale (tr. 8) makes a quiet entrance on the first violin and you appreciate it less than the restlessness of the squally dynamic contrasts within which it finds itself. A second theme (0:34) has more sustained notes, trying to conjure something more warmly reflective, but it’s constantly attacked by quaver flurries. A third theme (1:11), a gentler close relative of the first, is more successful at glimpsing happiness, started by viola, echoed by both violins, reaffirmed by viola and cello and then again both violins: a unique interlude in which there are no disruptive forces. But crashing, dissonant fortissimo chords, graphically revealed by the Dorics, cast it aside. The first theme returns, increasingly stressed but at least now game for a fight. The result, however, is that its presentation by the violins ends up in mangled distortion which the Dorics give us head-on. The only possibility of tranquillity now is in a pianissimo dreamlike interlude with a fourth theme, another close relative of the first (2:40), realized with wonderful deftness by the Dorics, as is the spark of semiquaver flurries that signal the onset of the next storm. The first theme achieves its greatest resilience at this point, but by this time the first violin is into a brainstorm which makes for an exciting but harrowing close. The defining characteristic of the Eschers’ account, a touch faster at 5:44 to the Dorics’ 5:55, is that a steely tension and distress is ever present. Even the third theme is given a kind of spartan, heroic quality and the fourth tries to exist in a baleful environment. The close is febrile. Yet I prefer the greater flexibility of the Dorics’ account in its contrasting warmth at the less frenetic moments and more telling realization of Mendelssohn’s dynamic contrasts, showing this is a carefully crafted as well as fully impassioned piece.

On CD2 the Dorics bring us the friendlier invigoration of String Quartet 5. A four-semiquaver flourish generates the first theme and much of the longest first movement (tr. 1) of this twofer. It’s well endowed with melody. The first theme sports two subsidiary themes, a more calmly undulating one (0:31) which melds into a slow variant of the flourish which then returns more playfully with entries in imitation by all the instruments and from which a spiky second subsidiary theme states its independence (1:00), relished by the Dorics’ first violin and cello. After this the semiquavers’ whirring is more whimsical as a backdrop in the first violin to a forthright rising second theme proper in the other instruments (1:15), the first substantial theme after the first and the most expansive and exuberant of the movement. This is hospitable to considerable rhythmic variation, including running quavers and semiquavers plus some staccato presentation and is unfazed by the interjection of the playful flourish mode as its supreme joie de vivre reduces the first theme to a thistledown variation. What’s more it has a significant codetta (2:26) of more yearning character to end the exposition before the opening flourishes have the final say. Don’t be confused by Northcott’s note in this CD booklet that Mendelssohn avoids the exposition repeat, as it is made from 2:54 in this performance and as marked in the Leipziger Ausgabe urtext, with the development starting at 5:44. The exposition is played by the Dorics with delighted assurance in its variety and imagination. It’s so wonderfully engaging for me the development, despite the Dorics’ attention to dynamic contrasts, in particular the thrilling fortissimo at 6:36, rather treads water and I’m relieved at the cello’s dolce presentation of the codetta theme (7:02) which has, however, become rather forlorn and slinks into dreamy musing until a ‘buck yourself up’ transformation inspires a torrent of semiquavers from the first violin which leads us smoothly into the first theme recapitulation, with the first violin now fully in heroic mode. The first subsidiary theme is then musingly extended as are the second theme and codetta. The Eschers (again BIS-2160) are a little more measured in their approach to Mendelssohn’s Allegro vivace marking, timing the movement at 13:22 to the Dorics’ 12:28. This gives the first theme a darker, more soberly considered quality. In the first subsidiary theme the interplay between first and second violin appears more labyrinthine. The Eschers’ second subsidiary theme is peppery but the second theme proper, while indeed assured, has more weight than the Dorics’ spring. Accordingly that second theme’s progress flows less spontaneously and seems more calculated. The Eschers gloomier, more dramatic passion in the development I find more compelling than the Dorics, but the latter are more engaging in the musing development of the codetta theme and transformation to the recapitulation.

The second movement Scherzo (tr. 2) is, like the first movement’s second theme, impelled by an upbeat. This theme is lightly energetic, busy, and peppered with climactic flashes, tempered by brighter but delicate episodes you could think of as mini Trios. The first of these (0:42) masks quite a frisky dance in the Dorics’ hands. The second (1:09) is an intricate, playful fugato, begun by the viola and then shared in turn by all. The third (1:37) finds the first violin drawing out a melody against a drone in the viola and capping it with a forceful one-note fanfare, a role in which next the cello against a second violin drone seems rather morose. The light relief of the return of the first episode is welcome, but this is a cue for the return of the opening material now more urgent and proceeding to a vehement declaration of the third episode melody by the first violin. Yet this is not the end, for the second episode now returns with a rather lugubrious echo of the third interwoven by the second violin and then viola. All come together at the close with the three-semiquaver clusters and surges of climax of the beginning before being shrugged off in four pizzicato chords. Northcott writes this recalls Mendelssohn’s famous Scherzo in his Octet in atmosphere which is a fair analogy, though the melodic content here is rather cadaverous and restrained. The Dorics reveal its deftness and unquiet restlessness well. The Eschers go for an approach which is more plainly overwrought and disturbing, with an attractive energy but lacking the Dorics’ shadowy quality. The Eschers’ episodes bring less relief. Their third episode melody is rather desperately forlorn and its fanfare tail manic.

I was first struck by the meltingly emotive quality of the Dorics’ slow movement, with again judicious portamento from Alex Redington. But the sixth note F flat on the second violin (tr. 3, 0:05) casts a valedictory shadow over the proceedings which continue chromatically spiced. The Dorics’ gauge the Adagio non troppo marking well. The movement is meditative but also impelled forward to stop it becoming indulgent. When there’s a second strain of warmer memories (2:32) it nevertheless comes to a sad climax (2:59). A central section (3:55) has a five-note melody which features in all instruments in turn before being engulfed in its accompanying semiquaver figuration. At the outset it’s poised and affectionate, but still sorrowful and grows anguished. The return of the opening now seems like a grateful acceptance of earlier times without effacing present bitterness. This creates a mood within which the five-note melody at last has a five-note resolution. The busy part-writing’s involvement of all the instruments creates a rich tapestry clearly revealed by the Dorics. Timing the movement at 8:34 to the Dorics’ 9:26, the Eschers emphasise the non troppo element of the marking. This makes for a warmer, smoother opening, the F flat and other chromatic notes less stark than the Dorics. The Eschers play beautifully, everything is clear, but beside the Dorics they provide a comparatively easy ride of opening section and I prefer the Dorics’ greater sense of spontaneity regarding the movement’s progression. But I like the Eschers’ treatment of the second strain climax which has a sense of glowing fulfilment and am won over by their very passionate, almost weeping entries of the five-note melody and gripping climax to the central section. Thereafter their opening material return is rather grimly resolute before again their eloquent treatment of the five-note melody and its resolution. In the final analysis I prefer the Dorics’ balanced appraisal, despite being more moved by the Eschers’ treatment of the more passionate phases, the Dorics are expressive there too.

Northcott’s note for this CD points out some feel the rondo finale is over extended, ‘some nine minutes in most performances.’ The Dorics’, timing at 8:21, make a fair stab at its marking of Molto allegro con fuoco and their general exuberance allows you to sit back and enjoy. The problem is that the rondo theme is basically another five-note one (tr. 4, 0:07) yet this one immediately extends and is completed as a 15-note one. But it lacks the emotive content of the central section theme of the previous movement, so Mendelssohn relies on scherzo-like flotsam and jetsam and cascades of descending semiquavers in all instruments to pep it up. He’s then able to have episodes headed by the first violin which are more soulful, the first (1:23) introducing a cantabile manner and it’s fascinating to hear how this material comfortingly takes over. The second episode (3:00) has a thinner wisp of first violin line to sustain it but has more delicate semiquaver figurations as a backcloth. The rondo theme then becomes more strident but the third episode (4:56) responds with a lullaby before the rondo bestirs itself again and a modified version of the becalming first episode returns (6:45) before the coda features a sunny fulfilment of the rondo theme (7:28). Timing the movement at 8:40, the Eschers are only marginally more measured. Their opening is less feathery than the Dorics yet has plenty of gusto. Where the Dorics are merry and companionable, the Eschers are more brittle and determined. Much of their playing is riveting, but I admire the Eschers’ performance whereas I enjoy that of the Dorics. For me the Eschers’ first episode is too intently projected where the Dorics’ has a slender, demure quality which is more of a contrast with the rondo theme. In the second episode I feel the Eschers’ articulation is a mite too firm. But I like the alertness and engagement they bring to the continual reworking of the rondo theme, though the Dorics’ generally lighter treatment of it honours Mendelssohn’s sleight-of-hand more. The Eschers’ lullaby episode is rather gloomy, less tender than the Dorics but their coda is fresh and spirited, though that of the Dorics has more of a feel of a smiling summation about it.

To sum up, here are exemplary performances by the Doric Quartet of three very different Mendelssohn string quartets, but what for me links them and ensures their attractiveness is the condition of being human that the Dorics reveal at the heart of these works.

Michael Greenhalgh
Exemplary performances that reveal the humanity at the heart of these works.


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