Mendelssohn: String Quartet in D, Op. 44/1; String Quartet No. in E minor, Op. 44/2

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COMPOSERS: Mendelssohn
LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
WORKS: String Quartet in D, Op. 44/1; String Quartet No. in E minor, Op. 44/2
PERFORMER: Eroica Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: HMU 907287
Mendelssohn dedicated his three quartets, Op. 44, to the Crown Prince of Sweden, but he composed them with the violinist Ferdinand David in mind. In 1836, the year before he began work on them, Mendelssohn had appointed David as leader of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra; and by the time he finished them his thoughts were already turning to the famous Violin Concerto he wrote for him. Of the three quartets, only the middle one, in the Concerto’s key of E minor, is well known; but Mendelssohn’s own favourite was the D major No. 1 – ‘more fiery, and grateful for the players’, as he put it. More impressive than its ‘fiery’ outer movements, however, is the intimate middle pair: a graceful, old-fashioned minuet and a delicate, transparently textured Andante – a sort of Mendelssohnian scherzo in slow motion. Both pieces reveal a mastery of string-quartet-writing no later 19th-century composer could match.

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Playing on gut strings, with sparing use of vibrato, and at a slightly lower pitch than one is used to, the Eroica Quartet produces performances of considerable warmth and affection. Only in the first two movements of the E minor Quartet does the voltage seem a little low: the Eroica’s easygoing scherzo, in particular, cannot compare for sheer brilliance with the account by the Melos Quartet for DG. It’s possible, too, to feel that there’s greater expressive intensity in the Guarneri Quartet’s performance of the D major (Arabesque); but if you want these two fine works on a single disc you won’t be disappointed by this newcomer. Misha Donat