Mendelssohn: String Quartet No.1; String Quartet No. 2; String Quartet No. 3; String Quartet No. 4; String Quartet No. 5; String Quartet No. 6

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COMPOSERS: Mendelssohn
LABELS: EMI
WORKS: String Quartet No.1; String Quartet No. 2; String Quartet No. 3; String Quartet No. 4; String Quartet No. 5; String Quartet No. 6
PERFORMER: Cherubini Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: CDS 7 54514 2 DDD
Christoph Poppen, leader of the Cherubini Quartet, has some sharp ideas on why Mendelssohn’s importance still hasn’t been properly understood, and he unfolds them in a stimulating interview which accompanies this boxed set of the six quartets his ensemble has recorded so far.

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Other ensembles, notably the Melos, Artis and Bartholdy, have had a crack at these works, and the Carmina and Coull are starting their own Mendelssohn journeys. There is something special about the Cherubini’s Mendelssohn, though.

Few quartets have shown quite the missionary zeal and the palpable dedication to the repertory as the Cherubini, and few have lived with it so long before recording it.

That, perhaps, accounts for the difference evident here between the playing of the Cherubini quartet and that of the Ysaÿe (in Quartets 1, 2 and 6). Both acknowledge the debt to Beethoven in Op. 12 and 13; but the Cherubini makes it quite clear that Mendelssohn is not Beethoven. Where the Ysaÿe plays with great intensity, deeply etching out the bass line, and making the part-writing sinewy, often aggressive, the Cherubini brings a quality of blitheness, which is at the very heart of Mendelssohn, without losing any of the longing.

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Both quartets offer fine performances of the last, tragic Op. 80 Quartet, written after the death of Mendelssohn’s sister, Fanny, and just a month before his own. But again, only the Cherubini seems to know the composer well enough to recreate the unstoppable impetus of the panic-stricken Scherzo, and to go beyond rhetoric to feel a gust of chill wind blowing through the agitated opening Allegro. Hilary Finch