The best recordings of Fanny Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in E flat

We enjoy the finest recordings of a chamber work that reveals the exceptional craft of a composer stifled by the era in which she lived…

Fanny Mendelssohn

Because Fanny Mendelssohn was never allowed to pursue a career as a professional composer, her creative activity was focused almost exclusively on writing music for the Berlin salon concerts which she hosted alongside her painter husband Wilhelm Hensel.

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For this reason, she poured much of her energy into composing small piano pieces and songs, and only very occasionally tackled larger genres.

Nevertheless, her relatively slender output of chamber music includes some remarkable works, including a Piano Quartet from 1823 and a Piano Trio dating from the last full year of her all-too-brief life.

No less impressive is her only String Quartet, which was composed within the space of only three months in 1834.

The best recording

Quartuor Ebène
Erato 464 5462

Given the work’s many evident qualities, surprisingly few recordings have been made of Fanny Mendelssohn’s String Quartet. Interestingly, too, those that have been made nearly all date from the last decade or so.

For a full-blooded, musically insightful and vividly captured account, look no further than this 2012 recording from the Quatuor Ebène, a young group who, having met as conservatoire students in Paris at the turn of the 21st century, have gone on to place themselves firmly among today’s most revered chamber ensembles.

It is performances such as this that have put them there, as the Ebènes extract the maximum degree of colour and imagination from Fanny Mendelssohn’s music. The first movement sets the scene with some wonderfully nuanced phrasing that revels in the score’s more audacious harmonic twists.

Their chosen tempo here is slightly more deliberate than on some other recordings, but this allows sufficient space for the melodic lines to breathe, particularly at the magical moment where the home key of E flat major is firmly established for the first time.

In the Scherzo, the Quatuor Ebène projects the music’s fervent activity with some strikingly articulated accents, and the Trio is delivered with superbly energetic, rhythmic dynamism. Pierre Colombet, the Quatuor Ebène’s never-less-than-elegant first violinist, is marvellously expressive in shaping the soaring melody of the Romanze, and the agitated middle section provides unexpectedly urgent contrast with some extremely powerful sonorities in the lower strings.

And of all the recordings that have been made of this work, no ensemble conveys the joyous exhilaration and carefree abandon of the Finale as convincingly as the Quatour Ebène, whose lightness of
touch and transparency of articulation are a delight to behold.

One further advantage of this excellent release is its imaginative programming. Although it may seem to be something of a gamble to place Fanny’s quartet as the centre-piece in a recital that also includes the musically substantial A minor and F minor Quartets by her famous younger brother, in no sense is Fanny’s achievement dwarfed by these monumental works.

On the contrary, the Quatuor Ebène revels in the boldness and expressivity of this quartet, injecting the music with the same degree of passion and commitment as in their performances of its much better known companions.

Three other great recordings

Erato Quartett Basel
CPO 999 6792

The Erato Quartett places Fanny Mendelssohn’s Quartet as its main work in a hugely enterprising progamme of quartets by women composers from the 18th and 19th centuries. Like the Ebènes, this Swiss quartet delivers a full-blooded and intensely expressive account accentuated by a richly resonant recording. What perhaps is missing is a similar variety of timbre and nuance. Nonetheless, those wishing to explore Fanny Mendelssohn’s work in the context of other undeservedly neglected repertory will not be disappointed.

Lafayette String Quartet
CBC MVCD1149

This Canadian group offers a more introverted approach to the first and third movements than the Erato Quartett and Quatuor Ebène, with purer timbres and less intense vibrato. On the other hand, the playing in the Scherzo and Finale is every bit as energetic and exuberant. Once again, they are edged out by the Ebènes in terms of vision and technical virtuosity, but programming the work alongside Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartet is inspired.

Cavaleri Quartet
Champs Hill Records CHRCD085

This youthful British quartet delivers a fresh and incisive account as part of an enjoyable boxed set of Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn’s works for string quartet. There are some awkward tempo fluctuations in the second movement, which suggests the possibility that two different takes of the Scherzo were spliced together. But setting this aside, the performance more than holds its own, even if it is not quite as imaginatively shaped as in the recording from the Quatuor Ebène.

And one to avoid…

Fanny Mendelssohn String Quartet

The Munich-based Fanny Mendelssohn Quartet deserves enormous credit for making the first commercial recording of this work (in 1994) and coupling it with the equally fascinating Piano Quartet. But its performance proves to be something of a disappointment, being rather tentative and cautious in expression. Rather than celebrate the boldness of Fanny Mendelssohn’s ideas, the players are far too respectful, smoothing over contrasts, understating the passion and intensity of the Romanze and being insufficiently light-hearted in the Finale. A shame.

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Original text by Erik Levi