Under the surface – Mendelssohn String Quartets

mendelssohn-escher

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 In the same key is a piece of juvenilia, a substantial unpublished quartet from the fourteen year old fledgling.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

Under the surface – Ustvolskaya Chamber Works on ECM

ustvolskaya-ecm

Composer: Galina Ustvolskaya (1919-2006)

Nationality: Russian

What did she write? Ustvolskaya wrote little published music, but her output still extends to five symphonies and a number of highly regarded chamber works.

Why isn’t she more popular? In general women classical composers have had an extremely raw deal over the centuries, but there are at least now a few contemporaries who are coming through to more prominent positions – among them Dame Judith Weir, now Master (Mistress!) of the Queen’s Music, Thea Musgrave and Sofia Gubaidulina. Ustvolskaya’s music is not perhaps as immediately as theirs, but she is arguably the most inventive and original.

What are the works on this new recording? Two works for violin and piano – the Sonata (1952) and Duet (1964) given characteristically sparse titles. They sandwich an earlier Trio for clarinet, violin and piano (1949), recorded for the second time by ECM.

What is the music like? Challenging. Not in a bad way, you understand!

The Duet is a fascinating piece, because there are some moments where it feels like the violin and piano are in open combat. The piercing high notes from the violin are haunting initially, but at about two and a half minutes in this cuts to some music that I can only describe as bloodthirsty, with violin and piano locked in battle.

There is a greater sense of togetherness between the instruments in the Sonata, where once again Kopatchinskaja and pianist Markus Hinterhäuser play with fearsome intensity. This work is where the influence of teacher Shostakovich is at its keenest, with a five-note motif on the violin that becomes obsessive and disconcerting. There are however some lovely slower moments of deep thought, where the violin makes bird-like calls over the soft piano.

The Trio is another dramatic work, its sonorities reminiscent of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, written for the same combination with cello. The music is especially effective when Ustvolskaya works the violin and clarinet together, effectively taking the bottom out of the music, while there is often a stronger sense of forward movement. Reto Bieri’s beautiful tone is notable in this performance.

What’s the verdict? If you’re willing to put the work in with Ustvolskaya’s music there are rewards to be had. She is a composer who seems never to waste a note, and although sometimes her writing is austere, it is packed with a deep-seated emotion.

Give this a try if you like… Shostakovich, Messiaen or Bartók

Spotify Playlist

An Ustvolskaya playlist is available on Spotify below, including the Trio and Violin Sonata detailed above, the highly regarded Octet and the Symphony no.5.

Under the surface – Stenhammar String Quartets

stenhammar-quartets

Composer: Wilhelm Stenhammar (1871-1927)

Nationality: Swedish

What did he write? Stenhammar was a pianist primarily, but enjoyed a real affinity with the string quartet, publishing six works in all. His two symphonies, piano concertos and a Serenade are also occasionally heard.

What are the works on this new recording? The String Quartet no.1 and String Quartet no.2. Both are in four movements and last about half an hour each. They are the last of the six to have been recorded by the Stenhammar Quartet for the Swedish record company BIS.

What is the music like? On reflection Stenhammar’s early string quartets have a relatively basic musical language but they feature attractive writing for strings, and are really well played in these affectionate performances.

In the String Quartet no.1 there is a nice falling motif that stands out in the second movement, while the fourth sets out with a strong sense of purpose, as if Stenhammar has been listening to Beethoven.

The String Quartet no.2 is a darker piece, with a shadow passing over the music at the end of the first movement in particular. Here too there is some tuneful music though, and the increasingly vigorous last movement has shades of Dvořák, especially in the pentatonic* ending.

What’s the verdict? These two works are by no means demanding but they make for very pleasant listening at either end of the day, even if the attention occasionally wanders. Very pleasant spring time music.

Give this a try if you like… Dvořák, Grieg or Mendelssohn

Spotify Playlist

A Stenhammar playlist is available on Spotify below, including a mature String Quartet no.4, the lovely Serenade, the Piano Concerto no.2 and the choral piece Midwinter.

Glossary

*pentatonic – a form of scale that only has five notes, as opposed to the most commonly used octave in Western music that has eight.