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Mendelssohn Quartets Galore

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F. Mendelssohn-B., String Quartets,
Leipzig String Quartet
MDG (available individually in the US)

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F. Mendelssohn-B., String Quartets,
Talich Quartet

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F. Mendelssohn-B., String Quartets,
Pacifica Quartet

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F. Mendelssohn-B., String Quartets 1 & 2,
Gabrieli Quartet
It hasn’t been that long that Felix Mendelssohn’s String Quartets suffered from neglect in the recording catalog and the Melos Quartet (DG) seemed the only game in town. But my word, has that been remedied over the last ten, fifteen years. Now there are superb cycles from the Pacifica Quartet (Cedille), Talich (Calliope), Ysaÿe (Decca), Henschel (Arte Nova), and Eroica Quartets (Harmonia Mundi). Additionally available are cycles from the Emersons (DG, including the Octet), the Coull (Hyperion), Cherubini (EMI), and Bartholdy String Quartets (old, but re-issued recently by Arts Music). The Leipzig Gewandhaus Quartet (NCA) has thrown its hat into the ring most recently.

Excerpt from String Quartet op.44 no.1, Molto allegro vivace, Leipzig Quartet

They are not to be mistaken for the Leipzig String Quartet, whose Mendelssohn String Quartets Musikproduktion Dabringhaus und Grimm (MDG) has now packaged into one box [currently not distributed in the US but available in the UK] along with every other work that could conceivably be included in such a collection: The youthful work of genius that is the Octet op.20, the 1823 E major String Quartet, the Four Movements for String Quartet op.81, and arrangements of his orchestral works (Symphonies 1 and 5, The Hebrides andRuy Blas overtures) for piano four hands with violin and cello. That makes the MDG box by far the most generous in content. Although those latter transcriptions, it should be said, are neither reason to choose this, or avoid another, collection.

Excerpt from the chamber version of The Hebrides op.26, Leipzig Quartet

There are no weak spots among the quartets; Mendelssohn moves from strength to strength. That the two first numbered quartets are the most popular is not surprising for a composer who wrote some of his finest music before he turned twenty. Just the slow movements of either of these quartets alone are a chamber music dream. Also liable to become dreamy when played with too little energy.

Excerpt from String Quartet op.44 no.2, Allegro assai appassionato, Leipzig Quartet

The Henschel Quartet’s performances, for example, are swift and no-nonsense, with a tendency toward neutrality. The Gabrieli Quartet, whose opp.12 and 13 recordings have just been re-issued on Chandos, indulges the slow movements with unsurpassed delicacy that I haven’t the heart to call “unnecessary”. The competitiveness of those twenty year old, relaxed performances is astonishing. The Leipzig String Quartet counters with solidity and the most homogenous, integrated quartet sound. They slacken the tension in the slow movements and make haste in the fast movements, although not nearly enough to call either tempi “extremes”. Their articulation is superb, if lacking the character the cursive Talich Quartet performances, which remain my favorite, achieve. And the Talichs, for what it is worth, also take every repeat.

Excerpt from String Quartet op.12, Andante espressivo, Gabrieli Quartet

Op. 80 is one of the most intense, harrowing, and fist-clenching works Mendelssohn ever wrote; compared to much of his squeaky clean charming music, it’s like an unshaven, boozing Mendelssohn announceing: “No More Mister Nice Guy”. This quartet contains some of the finest moments in all of Mendelssohn for me; right up there with the most clenching, gritty moments of his Second, choral Symphony. A clearer acoustic and keener separation of voices, like that of the Henschel or Talich Quartets, makes the fast movements more detailed; the very atmospheric, rich sound of the MDG recording tends towards mild muddiness on anything except very good,very detailed speakers, especially at the Leipziger’s speed. When, and only when, listened to on HiFi equipment with an analytic bent, the wealth of information contained on the MDG recording does reveal astonishingly beautiful audiophile material.

Excerpt from String Quartet op.80, Allegro assai, Henschel Quartet

The Octet is performed with four colleagues, not, like the Emerson’s gimmick, with themselves. Hausmusik (Virgin), long time favorites that I’ve become used to and comfortable with, don’t yet have to budge from Octet-top spot in my estimation, but the enhanced Leipzig group – including Michael Sanderling on cello – turns in a terrific performance with all their strengths – balance and varied tempi – playing in their favor. All that makes the Leipziger box one of the top choices, even as my own favorite remains the Talich Quartet (no Octet) and my first alternative – because they are so different from the rest – the Eroica Quartet (also without the Octet and with volume one not currently available).

Excerpt from String Octet op.20, Allegro moderato, Leipzig Quartet

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