Under the surface – Mendelssohn String Quartets


Composer: Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)

Nationality: German

What did he write? Mendelssohn was a child prodigy, a composer into his stride long before his teens were out. He wrote in most classical forms, and two of his five symphonies, the Italian and Scottish, are extremely popular. Almost singlehandedly responsible for the nineteenth century revival of Bach, Mendelssohn effectively showed his gratitude in the big sacred piece Elijah, an account of the Old Testament prophet’s life.

He wrote two concertos for piano and a celebrated example for the violin, while an impressive list of published works includes piano music, songs and chamber works, with two sonatas each for cello and violin. An organist as well as a pianist, Mendelssohn wrote for the instrument both on its own and as support for a large body of choral music.

What are the works on this new recording? This is the first volume of a three-part survey of Mendelssohn’s complete music for string quartet from the Escher String Quartet. They choose the first of his six numbered String Quartets, written when the composer was still only twenty. In the same key is a piece of juvenilia, a substantial unpublished quartet from the fourteen year old fledgling. Completing the disc is one of Mendelssohn’s quartet masterpieces, in E minor – part of a set of three published in 1837.

Why aren’t these works more popular? Mendelssohn quartets are heard quite often in the concert hall and have a decent recorded history, but are still not fully appreciated – those of Beethoven, Haydn and Mozart tend to get a lot more coverage.

What is the music like? The busy, purposeful early teenage quartet bears similarity with Haydn, but even at this early stage it is possible to detect Mendelssohn’s fluency as a composer. It flows easily from one idea to another.

The published E flat quartet is even more impressive in this regard, introducing more of a Beethoven influence but retaining its elegance also, but it is the E minor quartet that really shines on this disc. Brilliantly played by the Eschers, it shows how Mendelssohn can generate terrific energy in his string writing, the Scherzo playing out between the violins as though they are two butterflies in a dance. The slow movement reveals a more romantic beauty.

What’s the verdict? This is an ideal place to start for an introduction to Mendelssohn’s string quartets, because they are a great illustration of his craft as a composer. The Escher Quartet have clearly gone to great lengths to understand his methods, and their interpretations unfold as easily as the composer’s music, enjoying its subtle humour, digging in for the more serious sides and giving clean and very committed performances. As is so often the case, BIS provide a natural and very realistic recorded perspective.

You can listen to excerpts from this disc on the Escher String Quartet website

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