Felix Mendelssohn • Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel
There’s no shortage of fine recordings of Felix Mendelssohn from quartets such as the Mandelring (Audite), Emerson (DG), Cherubini (EMI), and Leipzig Quartets (MDG), to name but a few. But the Quatuor Ebène matches and in some respects exceeds these rivals in the commitment and physical impact of its playing. Furthermore, the inclusion of his sister Fanny Mendelssohn’s Quartet in E flat major makes this beautifully engineered programme all the more interesting, particularly since it’s such a remarkably assured and emotionally intense composition.
As far as Felix’s works are concerned, the F minor Quartet, written in response to the sudden death of his beloved sister, can rarely have sounded more despairing and almost unhinged. This is especially the case in the first two movements, where the players barrage us with the ferocity of their attack in the shuddering tremolando outbursts of the opening Allegro vivace assai, and in the relentless syncopated rhythms of the ensuing Allegro assai. Normally, the warmer harmonies of the slow movement provide respite, but in the Quatuor Ebène’s reading, the sense of loss and anguish in the writing is still palpable.
Although the A minor Quartet was completed 20 years earlier, at a time when there was no obvious cause of personal suffering, it too has its dark moments, especially in the chromatic fugal interplay of the slow movement and the melodramatic recitatives in the Finale. Once again the Quatuor Ebène employs the widest possible range of timbres and articulations in dramatising the musical argument, their use of non-vibrato particularly effective in the slow material that frames the entire work.