The Complete String Quartets
Oktett · Octet op. 20
Emerson String Quartet
Int. Release 03 Jan. 2005
4 CDs / Download
CD DDD 0289 477 5370 4 GH 4
Outstanding performances . . . So how did the Octet come out? Beautifully. It¿s utterly convincing as a real-time performance by eight flesh-and-blood musicians, approaching the ideal that those who love the piece frequently have to imagine in concert and on record. The intricate, churning inner parts are always fully responsive to the melodic lead and to each other. The music rises and falls and surges with a unanimity of purpose beyond anything you¿re likely to hear with an ad hoc ensemble, even one comprised of top-notch players.
Eminently listenable and enjoyable . . . The playing is spectacular throughout, and the engineering outstanding . . . This CD gets a 9 out of 10.
. . . (a) warm, vigorous and intelligent survey of the complete Mendelssohn string quartets . . .
The Emerson String Quartet restores fire to the heart of the German composer's work, creating red hot interpretations of the complete string quartets caught in ideal sound . . . the recorded results allow the music, rather than the technology, to do the talking.
. . . the Emersons make a stunning case for all the works here: the tuning is perfect, characterisation clear and accuracy tight as a drum . . . a life-affirming performance full of sunshine and wit.
The Emerson Quartet gives fully committed and convincing accounts of Mendelssohn¿s string quartets in recordings . . . these players demonstrate a benchmark reciprocity of ensemble, intonation, blend and phrasing, and their well-judged tempos ensure that all significant detail is clearly audible. The musicians give powerfully wrought readings of the lively, often intense outer movements . . . The Emersons convey the passionate intensity of the slow movements . . . displaying particularly fine lyricism and inwardness of expression. They instil . . . with all the requisite grace and mercurial charm and are fleet of finger and bow in the scherzos . . . Their account . . . is charming and they convey with musical intelligence Mendelssohn¿s often complex counterpoint . . . the sound is warm and expansive and the balance is exemplary throughout . . . A DVD documentary, Recording the Octet, adds a further unusual feature to this innovative issue, which represents a remarkable musical and technological achievement.
The Emerson's sharp ear for textural detail ensures that we hear clearly every felicity of Mendelssohn's scoring . . . As to the Octet, . . . the Emerson give a powerful, exhilarating reading.
A marvel of both technique and technology. The sound is pristine and perfectly balanced . . . Concert performances with playing this flawless and this meticulously balanced are rare . . . Maybe this is exactly the kind of recording we need to draw a younger audience into classical music.
Should any collectors be without the Mendelssohn String Quartets, here is a set that is either the best yet, or the equal of the best . . . The Emerson Quartet is old enough to bring the right degrees of feeling and understanding to these works, and still capable of the finest technical performance. Deutsche Grammophon's recording, supervised and edited by Da-Hong Seetoo, is exemplary, and the notes are more than adequate. We learn, for instance, not only who is playing which part in each performance, but what instrument he is playing as well . . . All blend splendidly, and, along with the superb playing of the self-doubled quartet, make an amazingly clean and sweet Octet . . . especially those who also need an Octet, should seriously think about this new triumph from the Emerson.
The wait was worth it. These performances . . . are brimming with the energy, lyrical impulse, and technical polish expected from this ensemble. The set is made all the more attractive by the inclusion of the Octet for Strings, an engineering tour de force that has the ESQ playing all the parts yet sounding for all the world like eight flesh-and-blood musicians. A video documentary included on a bonus CD (playable on your computer) explains how they did it.
Die Amerikaner, die bis auf den Cellisten im Stehen zu spielen und den Primgeiger zwischen den Pulten zu wechseln pflegen, haben für Mendelssohn eine von der gesamten Platten-Konkurrenz abweichende schlanke Körperlichkeit des Klangs entwickelt. In dieser abgebauten Massivität fehlen keineswegs die dynamischen Höhepunkte, aber sie werden dominiert von der ungewohnt genauen Differenzierung der unteren und mittleren Lautstärkegrade. Ebenso ungewöhnlich ist das breite Spektrum der Klangfarben. Offenbar haben die Emersons Praktiken der Originalklang-Ästhetik übernommen, setzen vibratolose oder direkt am Steg gespielte Töne ein, die jedes romantisch üppige Schwelgen unterbinden. Der klangfarblichen Abstufung entsprechen die spitze Rhythmisierung und eine fließende, nie hektisch wirkende Temponahme, auch in der Intonation ist das Ensemble makellos. Mit diesen Mitteln gelingt ihm eine Umwälzung in der Mendelssohn-Rezeption, die dem Klassizismus der Werke Rechnung trägt.
. . . eine sensationelle Einspielung . . . Die Emersons spielen auf acht verschiedenen Instrumenten, um einen Klon-Klang zu vermeiden -- und erreichen dennoch eine bewundernswerte Homogenität. Kein Wunder, hier müssen sich nicht acht Individualisten verständigen. Vielmehr gibt ein einziges, eingeschworenes Vierer-Ensemble, das genau weiß, wer wie viel Vibrato spielt, den Bogen führt oder trillert, den Ton an. Und der Tonmeister versteht sein Handwerk, an der Aufnahme wirkt nichts synthetisch. So durchsichtig, leidenschaftlich, mitreißend und, jawohl: perfekt war dieses Meisterwerk noch nie zu hören . . . Eine Referenz-Aufnahme.
Das Übersprunghafte, Diskontinuierliche etwa der frühen Quartette wird von den Amerikanern schonungslos offen gelegt. Keine Besänftigung. Alles wird hörbar, auch die Zerfaserung, das Fragile, ja sogar die Lücke, der Habitus des Zweifelns . . . Spieltechnisch erste Sahne. Und auch klanglich ist all dies ungeheuer flexibel gestaltet, auch weil die vier Herren das Vibrato weitgehend im unteren Bereich belassen.
Da haben die Emersons mit sich selbst als Partnern (und jeweils zwei Instrumenten) Mendelssohns großartiges Streichoktett eingespielt . . . das klingt alles bemerkenswert rund und schön; und selten hat man die Sechzehntel im Scherzo so makellos dahinperlen hören.
Ihr Credo ist der packende Zugriff, die virtuose Musizierweise, die . . . das hintergründige Spiel keinesfalls zu kurz kommen lässt . . . Sie spielen nicht nur schnell und flüssig, sondern auch überaus pointiert, kraftvoll, technisch atemberaubend perfekt . . . Gut ausbalancierte "sinfonische" Klangkultur führen die Emersons . . . in Mendelssohns op. 20 vor.
Das Emerson String Quartet ist ein exorbitantes Ensemble. Großartig auch die Einspielungen sämtlicher Mendelssohn-Quartette: genau in der Diktion, immer präsent, zwingend klar.
Das gleichermassen strukturbetonte wie elegante Spiel von Eugene Drucker und Philip Setzer, Lawrence Dutton und David Finckel steht auch den Streichquartetten von Felix Mendelssohn gut an. Ihre Gesamteinspielung verzichtet auf allzu grosse romantische Emphase und zeichnet sich vielmehr durch einen frischen Zugang mit federnder Rhythmik und Detailgenauigkeit aus . . . Das Resultat besticht durch klanglichen Reichtum und höchste Präzision.
Das amerikanische Emerson String Quartet bringt in seiner Gesamteinspielung (bei DGG, vier CDs) alle Werke in voller Balance zur Geltung . . . Sehr schnell und sehr gerne spürt, sinnt und lauscht man den Schönheiten dieser Musik nach und verliert keinen akademischen Gedanken mehr an die erhabenen Vorbilder. Die emphatischen melodischen Aufschwünge, der kontrapunktisch dichte Satz, manche schier sakrale Erlauchtheit der langsamen Sätze ¿ all dies wird spiel- und klangtechnisch meisterhaft vermittelt.
D'une technique suprême, ils nous offrent un son d'une magnifique homogénéité et d'une splendeur incontestable. Puissant mais jamais forcé, leur son vous enveloppe pour ne plus vous libérer. Mais contrairement à d'autres, ils savent canaliser cette énergie et cette plénitude sonore pour exprimer mille et une atmosphères, n'étant pas de façon constante uniquement symphonistes. Ainsi, toutes les voix participent à la construction de la trame sonore, dans une précision quasi inhumaine. Cette alliance de densité contrapuntique et harmonique traduit magnifiquement tous les éléments de la partition, sans pour autant que l'on soit perdu dans cette abondance d'informations musicales, car les Emerson hiérachisent admirablement la polyphonie en une souplesse et un modelé des lignes infinis. Cette excellente conduite contrapuntique procure une tension et un intérêt inaltérables . . . Il sera bien difficile . . . de faire mieux . . .
. . . une plénitude et un ensemble parfaits, bien évidemment supérieurs aux formations réunissant huit musiciens. Dans cette optique symphoniste, virtuose et dramatique, les Emerson, parfaits, font merveille et surclassent leurs concurrents.
. . . sonorités amples, souples, onctueuses et sans aspérités, lignes vibrantes et généreuses. Leur énergie n'est jamais en reste, les élans romantiques fusent sans retenue . . . Les Emerson semblent nous ouvrir le fond de leur c¿ur . . . en trouvant à chaque page le juste mélange de ferveur, de mystère et de fraîcheur si particulier à Mendelssohn . . . Le résultat est stupéfiant [Octuor]: c'est l'une des visions modernes les plus captivantes de la discographie.
... el Emerson va dibujando con trazo e incisivo y maestro la personalidad musical de Mendelssohn ...
La interpretación es realmente soberbia, con una expresión fantástica y un carácter muy apropiado en todos los pasajes. La dicción, frasco y conjunción son dignas de un cuarteto con el prestigio del Emerson, y la calidad técnica de la grabación, de DG. Un gran disco y una innovación en la presentación de álbumes de este tipo.
The String Quartets of Mendelssohn
Chamber music remained a constant preoccupation of Mendelssohn throughout the meteoric career that established him at the forefront of German music during the 1830s and 1840s. Already at the age of seven, the boy was coached in ensemble playing by the Parisian violinist Pierre Baillot, and among Mendelssohn's earliest surviving works are various pieces for violin and piano from 1820, and a series of learned fugues for string quartet from 1821, all written under the supervision of his composition teacher, Carl Friedrich Zelter.
Mendelssohn's final year, 1847, took him to Switzerland, where he mourned the tragic loss of his elder sister, the composer-pianist Fanny Hensel, by drafting the turbulence-charged String Quartet in F minor, op. 80. Only months later, after his final return to Leipzig, he was contemplating a new string quartet when he suffered several strokes and died at only 38.
As one of the premier pianists of his age, Mendelssohn performed with the most accomplished violinists, including Nicolò Paganini, Rodolphe Kreutzer, Louis Spohr, Henri Vieuxtemps, Ole Bull, Ferdinand David and the young prodigy Joseph Joachim, whom he introduced to England in 1844. A skilled violinist and violist himself - he had studied with the Spohr protégé Eduard Rietz - Mendelssohn also took part in readings of his own string quartets, quintets and the irrepressibly exuberant Octet, composed when he was only 16. And during the 1840s, at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, where he directed the orchestra's subscription concerts, he won critical acclaim for his Abendunterhaltungen (“evening entertainments"), a supplementary concert series devoted to chamber music, in which he frequently appeared to perform works by J.S.Bach, Mozart and Beethoven.
In less obvious ways, too, chamber music had an important function in Mendelssohn's remarkably versatile life as a composer, conductor and pianist. His orchestral scores exhibit translucence and clarity of texture, an attention to detail and nuance that often approaches the intimacy of German chamber music. Indeed, on at least one occasion Mendelssohn effectively closed the gap between orchestral and chamber genres. When in 1829 the 20-year-old directed his First Symphony op. 11 in London at a Philharmonic concert, instead of performing the third-movement minuet, he substituted an arrangement of the elfin scherzo from his Octet, announced as an Intermezzo and executed, according to the Athenaeum (10 June 1829) by “only a limited number of violins, tenors [violas], and basses, ... and all the wind instruments." By this means Mendelssohn reduced the orchestral mass to chamber-music proportions, and injected an element of Romantic fancy into his symphonic debut. Similarly, three years later, when he appeared as soloist in some Mozart piano concertos in Paris, the accompaniment was not a full orchestra but Baillot's string quartet, so that Mozart's orchestral conceptions were transformed into piano quintets.
In Mendelssohn's day string quartets were increasingly regarded as an ideal form of absolute instrumental music - for the aesthetician Karl Reinhold von Koestlin, writing after mid-century, chamber music aspired to nothing less than a Hegelian “dialogue of the (absolute) spirit with itself." In the 1780s and 90s the high classical quartets of Haydn and Mozart had established the more modest principle of the genre as a spirited musical conversation among equals. According to the composer Carl Reinecke, the young Mendelssohn was encouraged by Zelter to emulate the form of Haydn's and Mozart's quartets. Indeed, it is not difficult to discover throughout Mendelssohn's chamber music an overarching concern for formal balance and clarity, and in his propensity for symmetrical phrase structures further evidence of a classicizing bent.
But if Mendelssohn's quartets re-synthesize strains of Viennese Classicism, they also absorb other, no less compelling stylistic influences. For instance, the love of complex counterpoint, expressed in the stunning finale of the Octet, that ne plus ultra of fugal writing, reflects Mendelssohn's concerted efforts to revive the music of J.S.Bach. And Mendelssohn's first two published quartets, op. 13 and 12, composed in 1827 and 1829, were created under the forceful influence of Beethoven, whose ineffable late quartets were appearing in 1826 and 1827. Like Schubert and Robert Schumann, Mendelssohn thus used the medium of chamber music to effect a rapprochement with Beethoven's increasingly abstract music. Finally, there are also in Mendelssohn's quartets telltale signs of his unique strain of Romanticism - for instance, the evanescent, gossamer textures and puckish gyrations in several of the scherzi of his quartets (and of the Octet), not far removed from the Midsummer Night's Dream Overture, one of his most memorable and novel scores. In short, the quartets explore several different paradigms of chamber music and the Classic-Romantic dialectic that animates the composer's œuvre as a whole.
Mendelssohn completed his first full-length quartet, the String Quartet in E flat major, at 14 (1823). Left unpublished until 1879, it is a student work executed under Zelter's conservative aegis and, not surprisingly, betrays Classical influences - in the first movement, a Mozartian warmth and lyricism, and in the third-movement minuet, compact phrases impelled by upbeats reminiscent of Haydn's minuets. The sombre hues of the slow movement, in a lugubrious C minor, occasionally anticipate the Andante of the masterful Octet, finished only two years later. The finale, a double fugue constructed upon two rather wooden subjects presented separately and then combined, underscores the academic imprint of this youthful enterprise, but also draws upon the classical tradition of fugal finales, exemplified by Haydn's String Quartets op. 20 and Mozart's K. 387.
Of considerably greater sophistication but also still impressing as a student exercise is the Fugue in E flat major, op. 81 no. 4 (1827, published posthumously in 1850), another double fugue with ties to the 18th century. Its marking, A tempo ordinario (the Italian term for common time), was favored by Handel, and the initial fugal subject, based on the pitches E flat, F, A flat, and G, describes a motive used by Mozart in the finale of his “Jupiter" Symphony, and by Baroque composers including J.S.Bach. Mendelssohn found in the motive a potent entrée into earlier musical periods: in 1830, he used it to begin his “Reformation" Symphony, to symbolize Catholic polyphony and the “ancient style" (stile antico); and in 1836, he revisited the motive in the magisterial double fugue that introduces the second part of his oratorio St.Paul.
Among Mendelssohn's (indeed, any composer's) most extraordinary accomplishments is the Octet in E flat major, op. 20 (1825). Here the precocious 16-year-old reached full maturity as a composer and penned a masterpiece that at the time tested the limits of chamber-music players. The first edition of 1832 included this instruction: “This Octet must be played by all the instruments in the style of a symphonic orchestra. Pianos and fortes must be exactly observed and more strongly emphasized than is usual in works of this type." Mendelssohn thus positioned the Octet as a chamber work aspiring to become a symphony. Indeed, the opulent string writing and intricate contrapuntal manipulations of the finale, which incorporates fugal writing into a hybrid sonata-rondo form, recall the grandeur of Mozart's “Jupiter" Symphony, and Mendelssohn's unexpected revival of the scherzo in the finale points to another symphonic antecedent - Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Then, too, the expansive, florid writing for the first violin, designed for Mendelssohn's violin teacher Eduard Rietz, gives the composition a brilliant sheen that evinces the virtuosity of a concerto. No less impressive is the sheer diversity of textures, as Mendelssohn reconfigures the eight parts into kaleidoscopic mixtures, ranging from minimalist unison passages (e.g. the conclusion of the scherzo) to various pairings and other groupings of instruments, antiphonal passages in which the ensemble divides into two quartets, and the tour de force eight-part counterpoint of the finale.
Mendelssohn divulged no programmatic inspiration for the Octet, but according to his sister Fanny the scherzo was inspired by the “Walpurgis Night's Dream" from the first part of Goethe's Faust, a dream sequence set on the Brocken in the Harz Mountains. Here an amateur cast performs a masquerade in doggerel, accompanied by an orchestra of insects and frogs, imaginatively recreated by Mendelssohn's ethereal string writing. Having visited Goethe in Weimar in 1821 and 1825, the composer was intimately familiar with Faust I, and indeed may have conceived the finale of the Octet to depict the concluding dungeon scene, with its culminating struggle between divine and diabolical forces for Gretchen's soul. Such an interpretation could account for the unusual quotation midway in the movement of Handel's “Hallelujah" chorus from Messiah (“And He shall reign for ever and ever") and its juxtaposition with the obstreperous, sinister recall of the scherzo.
In 1827 and 1829 Mendelssohn composed the String Quartets in A minor, op. 13, and E flat major, op. 12, published in 1830 in reverse order. They reveal a new immersion in the quartets of Beethoven. Thus the opening of op. 12 is reminiscent of Beethoven's “Harp" Quartet op. 74, while op. 13 recalls the key and dissonant textures of Beethoven's op. 132 and refers in the Adagio to the fugato of the “Serioso" Quartet op. 95. A principal concern of Mendelssohn at this time was the “organic" interdependence of the whole; as he explained to the Swedish composer A.F.Lindblad, in the intricate relationships between the various movements one became aware of the “mystery that must be in music." He unified op. 13 by basing it upon his love song Frage (“Question"), op. 9 no. 1, composed to a text he himself may have written. While the outer movements present explicit quotations from the Lied, the inner movements contain more subtle traces, as in the scherzo-like middle section of the Intermezzo, where one phrase of the song is delicately outlined.
In the case of op. 12, Mendelssohn also employed cyclic thematic techniques to tie the work together. The impetuous finale, most of which is in C minor, periodically recalls material from the lyrical first movement, and it concludes with an extensive quotation that revisits the opening of the quartet and reestablishes its tonic key. Mendelssohn secretly dedicated op. 12 to the daughter of a Berlin astronomer, Betty Pistor, a singer who may also have been the inspiration for op. 13.
When he next turned to the string quartet, at the age of 28, Mendelssohn was the world-renowned composer of the oratorio St.Paul, acclaimed conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra, and an infatuated newlywed. The three String Quartets op. 44 were products of 1837 and 1838. No.2 in E minor was sketched during his honeymoon in the Black Forest with Cécile Jeanrenaud, daughter of a Huguenot minister, while Nos. 3 and 1, in E flat and D major, were drafted after the couple's return to Leipzig. The three quartets appeared in 1839 with a dedication to the Crown Prince of Sweden.
Prominent in the opus is a classicizing quality, perhaps most evident in the stylistically retrospective minuet of No. 1, which opens with two symmetrical eight-bar periods, of which the second is a nearly exact transposition of the first from the tonic to the dominant. The result is a considerably more objective and accessible style than the subjective ruminations of opp. 12 and 13. But the Classical veneer of op. 44 does not obscure or diminish some exceptional music. The opening movement of No. 2, with its elegiac rising theme in the first violin, projects an agitated, wistful quality that anticipates Mendelssohn's violin concerto in the same key; while the inner movements of No. 3 offer compelling examples of Mendelssohn's most personal style: poignancy in the slow movement, with its chromatic harmonic relationships, and puckish mischief in the scherzo, with its rapid-fire staccato work, hiccoughing second subject and mock fugato. An especially avid student of op. 44 was Robert Schumann, who in 1842 dedicated his own set of three quartets to Mendelssohn.
The Capriccio in E minor, op. 81 no. 3, composed in 1843 but issued posthumously, couples a pensive Andante with a strident, energetic fugue to form a prelude and fugue. Its capricious quality derives from the imaginative way in which the two parts are related: from the violin melody of the Andante Mendelssohn extracts the pitches B, C, D sharp and E and redeploys them in a considerably different context to frame the contours of a fugal subject. The reveries of the Andante and contrapuntal gambits of the fugue are thus cut from the same cloth, as Mendelssohn juxtaposes the subjective and cerebral sides of his musical inspiration.
The learned counterpoint of the Capriccio and Classical balance of op. 44 are nowhere evident in Mendelssohn's String Quartet in F minor, op. 80, drafted during the summer of 1847 and published in 1850 after his death. With only months to live, the composer gave heartfelt expression to his grief over the death of his sister Fanny, who in May had suffered a stroke in Berlin while rehearsing her brother's cantata Die erste Walpurgisnacht. Everywhere the textures of the quartet are rent by stylistic discontinuities - by the agitated tremolos, interruptions and leaps of the first movement, by the macabre scherzo of the second that begins in medias res with jarring syncopations (Mendelssohn once predicted that Fanny would compose a scherzo serioso), by the intense lyricism of the slow movement, and by the dissonant energy of the finale, which revisits the tremolos of the first and syncopations of the second movements. Hanging over much of the whole is the darkness of the key of F minor; only the slow movement departs from it to explore A flat major and achieves an inwardness of expression at times reminiscent of Fanny's songs - she composed some 250.
According to the pianist-composer Ignaz Moscheles, Mendelssohn spent his last weeks working on a new string quartet in D minor, which included a theme-and-variation movement, “less gloomy" and “somewhat more cheerful" than op. 80. No such work has survived, but among Mendelssohn's manuscripts were two quartet movements published as the Tema con Variazioni in E major and Scherzo in A minor, op. 81 nos. 1 and 2. Save for their key, the variations match Moscheles's description. Mendelssohn begins with a graceful theme from which he progressively departs in five variations, the last of which erupts in a tumultuous presto in E minor. The scherzo, vaguely reminiscent of the scherzo from the incidental music to A Midsummer Night's Dream, op.61 (No.1, performed as entr'acte music between the first two acts of Shakespeare's play), falls into two alternating sections, of which the opening eventually dissolves into a simplified outline and, at the end, two pizzicato chords. Once again Mendelssohn seems to challenge the idea of formal closure: the theme exhibits a questioning, searching quality that never seems to find resolution. Whether op. 81 nos. 1 and 2 belonged to a planned four-movement quartet or were conceived as separate miniatures we shall never know. But the fact that Mendelssohn turned to the medium of chamber music, and specifically to the string quartet, to record his final instrumental thoughts was in itself significant enough.
R. Larry Todd (Duke University) is the author of Mendelssohn: A Life in Music (Oxford University Press, New York and Oxford, 2003).
"SOULFUL, LYRICAL, PASSIONATE AND EXCITING"
The Emerson String Quartet's Complete Mendelssohn Recording
Following up comprehensive recording projects featuring the Viennese Classics - Haydn and the entire Beethoven cycle - and music of the 20th century - the complete Bartók and Shostakovich quartets, the Emerson String Quartet now focus their famously penetrating musicianship for the first time on the complete quartets of an early Romantic composer - Felix Mendelssohn. Speaking for the ESQ, violinist Eugene Drucker had this to say about the Quartet's championship of this wonderful music, which deserves to be much better known:
"We've wanted to record Mendelssohn for a long time. His music is soulful, lyrical, passionate and exciting. His strong sense of structure, rooted in the Classical models that made such a deep impression on him, is apparent throughout his chamber music. Mendelssohn's melodic invention, harmonic palette and pacing combine to give his music a distinct personal stamp and a directness of expression that have a strong effect on concert audiences. As performers, we enjoy the kinetic energy that galvanizes us when we play his fast movements, the glittering brilliance of his scherzos and the emotional depth of his slow movements."
Music lovers have always revered Mendelssohn's famous works - A Midsummer Night's Dream, the Violin Concerto, the "Scottish" and "Italian" Symphonies, the Octet, the Songs without Words and Elijah. But many of them are probably still unfamiliar with the String Quartets. They're in for a treat - and, as Drucker points out, for something of a revelation:
"The main surprise for listeners not previously familiar with these quartets will be how varied they are, how typically Mendelssohnian they sound (except the very early quartet and the disturbed and disturbing soundscape of op. 80). Those who tend to think of Mendelssohn as a composer tied to tradition will be surprised by how unformulaic this music is. The return of material from earlier movements in both opp. 13 and 12 gives these works an almost novelistic sense of destiny fulfilled. The echoes of Schubert in the poignant slow movement of op. 44 no.3, and the outbursts of passion sometimes bordering on anger in many of the slow movements, belie any lingering notion of Mendelssohn as a happy, superficial or facile genius. The late op. 80 is almost modern in its rejection of easy solace."
One of the great musical prodigies of all time, Mendelssohn wrote some of his supreme masterpieces while he was still a teenager - the Octet and Midsummer Night's Dream Overture being two famous examples. He was only 14 when he wrote his first string quartet, but he wrote his tragic last one near the end of his brief life. In performing and recording all of these works, the Emerson Quartet have noted a clear developmental arc. As Eugene Drucker tells it, Mendelssohn's youthful first effort already demonstrates a deep understanding of Classical form: "sonata form, song form in the slow movement, a stylized minuet that's closer in spirit to a scherzo, and a fugal finale." But, even more importantly, Drucker emphasizes:
"His sense of interplay of melodic material among the four voices shows that he'd already absorbed the essential idea of the texture of a string quartet: Goethe's idea of an intelligent conversation among equals. A much more developed example of fugal writing came a few years later, with a slow, lyrical fugue in E flat major that may have been influenced by the opening movement of Beethoven's op. 131. In his first mature quartets, opp. 13 (1827) and 12 (1829), one can hear both a strongly individual voice and an astonishing absorption and understanding of Beethoven's late quartets, written not long before."
A decade after the "subjective ruminations" of opp.12/13 - to use a phrase of Mendelssohn expert R. Larry Todd, who has written the booklet notes for the Emerson's new recorded cycle - came the three quartets of op. 44 (1837-38), composed in a more objective, "Classical" style. Eugene Drucker points out a few highlights from this set:
"The slow movement of no.2, the dark, brooding Quartet in E minor, like every slow movement in Mendelssohn's quartets from op. 13 on, is a real gem, which ranges from serenity to urgency and back again with the most natural balance in every phrase. The first and last movements of no.3 are full of brilliant writing for all four instruments, while the tender, intimate slow movement reveals an unusually broad harmonic palette. The outer movements of op. 44 no.1 feature the most buoyantly virtuosic writing of the entire set."
Let's skip ahead another decade to the summer of 1847. Exhausted from a visit to England, Mendelssohn had returned to Germany only to learn that his beloved sister, also a composer, had died suddenly while he was away. Profoundly grief-stricken he travelled to Switzerland to recover, but at first was able only to paint, not to compose. Eventually he turned again to music, and one of the works he drafted on that trip was the turbulent String Quartet in F minor. Drucker speaks of this extraordinary piece:
"Op. 80, brooding and disturbed, in the dark key of F minor, was written after the sudden death of the composer's sister Fanny. This was a terrible blow for him, and one can hear it in the obsessive character of his last full quartet, written in the year that he himself was to die. Though much of Mendelssohn's earlier music is passionate, and some of it stormy, there is usually some sense of relief, or at least resolution. None of that is available to the listener in the brooding, unremitting turbulence of the first, second or fourth movements. The wistful slow movement, on the other hand, seems more vulnerable in its lyricism than many of the earlier slow movements."
Tragically, Mendelssohn never regained his physical and mental strength. Only a few months later, he suffered a fatal series of strokes. He was only 38. Shortly before his death he composed two movements that may possibly have been intended for a new four-movement string quartet: the Andante (a set of variations) and Scherzo. Together with the earlier Fugue and Capriccio these were published posthumously as op. 81. Eugene Drucker finds a valedictory quality in these last chamber musical utterances:
"The mellow lyricism of the Andante, though it erupts at one point into a fast and stormy variation, seems to indicate a measure of peace of mind restored to the bereaved genius. The witty, mercurial Scherzo also indicates that Mendelssohn had rediscovered some of his youthful joy in composing. Perhaps it is fitting to think of this miniature, which may or may not have been part of a projected larger work, as his farewell to the genre into which he had poured so much inspiration and love."