Recording of the Week Mendelssohn from the Quatuor Ebène
The Quatuor Ebène will be well known to many readers following their multi-award-winning Debussy, Ravel and Fauré disc a few years ago, which picked up both Gramophone’s 2009 Record of the Year and also won Chamber Music Disc of the Year at Germany’s Echo Klassik Awards. They are a fabulous ensemble and I can’t think of a better way to start 2013 than with their new disc of Mendelssohn (both Felix and Fanny) string quartets.
Written mainly in 1827, when Felix was only eighteen years old, the A minor Quartet, Op. 13 was (despite its official number) actually Mendelssohn’s first string quartet. But despite his young age, Mendelssohn was by then already an incredibly experienced composer of chamber music, having written, amongst other things, two piano quartets and his famous octet for strings.
The influence of Beethoven (who had only died a few months previously) is clear, as is the fact that Mendelssohn evidently had an intimate knowledge of the composer’s late quartets – both structural patterns and motivic ideas display compositional styles only recently developed by Beethoven. However, Mendelssohn’s writing is much more overtly romantic and therefore communicates more clearly and directly with the listener. It has a freshness and sparkle, which combined with both eloquence and genuine dramatic energy (especially in the finale) make this quartet a real treasure, and probably my favourite of the composer’s six numbered quartets.
The other Felix Mendelssohn quartet on this disc is his final quartet, Op. 80, composed in 1847 after the death of his older sister Fanny. Fanny’s death was a devastating blow to the composer. They had been incredibly close throughout his life and his despair and anguish are clear throughout the work, with a moving adagio and obvious grief and distress to the very end. As some commentators have observed, it is almost like a ‘quartet-Requiem’ for his beloved sister. He perhaps never recovered from the pain of Fanny’s death, as it was also to become his last major work - he died only two months after its completion at the age of just 38.
It is therefore entirely appropriate that between the two quartets by Felix described above, we hear the one quartet which Fanny Mendelssohn wrote – in E flat major dating from 1834. As this quartet verifies, she was a highly gifted and imaginative composer. She actually produced over 400 works (mainly songs and short piano works) but, being a woman, was never in a position to build a career in the way that her brother had. This quartet is lyrical and full of grace and contains themes, ideas and moments every bit as good as anything from Felix.
The Quatuor Ebène play with the commitment and passion which they have become renowned for. Technical mastery is a given, whilst the spontaneity and homogeny of things like articulation and phrasing are remarkably consistent. The balance is excellent with solos in the inner parts just as characterised as those in the first violin. Meanwhile the recorded sound is alive and vivid throughout.
But what impresses me most is the range of characterisation and expression which the Quartet achieve. As the Quatuor Ebène state in the booklet:
”The music of Felix Mendelssohn expresses both joy and defiance, is capable of moving listeners to tears, and has a romantic ardour that ranges from a kind of humanist majesty to transports of passion and simple human suffering”
Easy to write, but their ability of achieve these extremes, whilst keeping every movement and quartet structurally cohesive is a supreme achievement.
Wow, 7th January and already one of my discs of the year!!
Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC