String Quartets By Felix & Fanny Mendelssohn / Merel Quartet

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MENDELSSOHN String Quartet in f, op. 80. 4 Pieces for String Quartet, op. 81. MENDELSSOHN-HENSEL String Quartet in E? Merel Qt GENUIN GEN 11204 (69:26)

The pairing of the two chief works on this disc is most apt: the only string quartet by Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel and the last string quartet by brother Felix, the latter penned in 1847 to express his terrible grief over her tragically early death, with his own following shortly thereafter. They are supplemented by the four pieces of the op. 81, of which the first two ( Andante and Scherzo ) also date from 1847, the third ( Capriccio ) from 1843, and the last ( Fuga ) from 1827; they were published together posthumously. Mendelssohn’s op. 80 surely needs no introduction from me; suffice it to say that it is to my mind his greatest masterwork among his chamber pieces, and its heartfelt searing drama completely refutes the absurd canard that its creator was content with producing works of faultless formal elegance but lacking in expressive depth. The Mendelssohn-Hensel work, timing out at about 20 minutes, is finely wrought and delicate. It opens with a genteel and placid Allegro ma non troppo, moves on to a graceful but stately Allegretto and slightly pensive (and slightly overlong) Romanze, and closes with a spirited and energetic Allegro molto vivace. As always, the compositional style is markedly similar to that of her brother, somewhat less imaginative melodically and harmonically but nonetheless of considerable quality and having distinct touches of individuality. One can only wonder about and regret what she might have produced but did not due to her untimely demise and the social restrictions of her era.

The Merel Quartet of Zurich, performing on modern instruments but with interpretive touches clearly informed by period-instrument practices (leaner tone and use of reduced vibrato), presents top-notch performances all around. The Mendelssohn-Hensel quartet is given a warmly sympathetic reading; the rendition of the Mendelssohn op. 80 has a knife-edge tension and keenness that unashamedly bears comparison to the best recorded competition, and the members of the op. 81 foursome are treated as substantial works in their own right rather than as mere afterthoughts. The recorded sound has a bright, crisp immediacy without harshness.

I presume that most collectors already have at least one recording of the op. 80 and are more likely to consider acquiring this disc for the Mendelssohn-Hensel quartet, for which alternatives are scarce. I would avoid the Asasello Quartet on Avi, the Lafayette Quartet on CBC Musica Viva (currently out of print, but available as an MP3 download), and the Fanny Mendelssohn Quartet on Troubadisc (diffidently reviewed by David Johnson in Fanfare 18:1, though he recommended the accompanying performance of her trio), all of which are slack or overly cautious and lackluster. That leaves only the Erato Quartet on cpo, a performance strongly recommended by John W. Lambert in 23:5. That is a fine interpretation, but very different from this one; it takes an overtly big-boned romantic approach, and is set in an extremely resonant recording acoustic, with the result sounding more like a small string ensemble than a quartet. That disc is filled out by the quartets of two now quite obscure women composers, Maddalena Laura Lombardini-Sirmen and Emilie Mayer. One’s choice between the cpo disc and the present one will therefore be determined by preferences in pairings, interpretive approach, and sonic ambience. For anyone desiring alternative recommendations for the op. 80 and 81 of Felix, I would turn to the complete quartet cycles by either the Leipzig or Emerson quartets; see the excellent summary of their respective strengths by Burton Rothleder in his review of the Leipzig cycle (my own preference) in 32:6.

FANFARE: James A. Altena

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: GEN11204

  • UPC: 4260036252040

  • Label: Genuin

  • Composer: Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel, Felix Mendelssohn

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Merel String Quartet