LABELS: BIS SACD
ALBUM TITLE: Mendelssohn
WORKS: String Quartets Nos 1 & 4; String Quartet in E flat, MWV R18
PERFORMER: Escher String Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: BIS-1960 (hybrid CD/SACD)
In the first of a series of three discs offering the complete Mendelssohn string quartets, the Escher Quartet brings together works from different times of the composer’s life. The early E flat Quartet was written when he was in his mid teens and not published until 56 years after his death; the official No. 1, Op. 12, dates from 1829, the time of Mendelssohn’s first visit to Britain; and the E minor Quartet No. 4 is from a decade later.
The Escher Quartet has enjoyed a rapid rise to prominence, not least championed by the Emerson Quartet and invited to festivals by both Pinchas Zukerman and Itzhak Perlman. It has also been part of the BBC New Generation Artists scheme, and its Zemlinsky disc on Naxos was nominated for a BBC Music Magazine Award last year. It’s an impressive pedigree and the young New York-based ensemble’s playing lives up to it in many ways. First, this is full-blooded quartet playing in the grand, classic manner: extrovert and eloquent. Rich tone, good balance and a particularly noteworthy expressiveness from the first violin, Adam Barnett-Hart, who offers that rare ability not only to sing but also to speak through the instrument. The teenage work is treated with affection, the ensemble making the most of its slow movement’s limpid songfulness. The E minor quartet with its sparkly, shivery scherzo is full of life, delivered with irresistible rhythmic swing; listen out for the ecstatic tones from cellist Dane Johansen in the slow movement.
For the most intimate and delicate movements, though, a slightly lighter touch would perhaps not go amiss: one senses the quartet aiming to reach the back row. Generally, though, this is hugely engaging music-making. Jessica Duchen