WORKS: String Quartet in E flat, Op. 12; String Quartet in A minor, Op. 13
PERFORMER: Juilliard String Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: SK 60579
Late Beethoven, it seems, made that doyen of French early Romanticism, Cherubini, sneeze. In fact, audiences and many composers throughout the 19th century failed to grasp the true significance of the master’s last thoughts. The teenage Mendelssohn, however, not only admired the advances of Beethoven’s late quartets, but in his A minor quartet was prepared to use them as a starting point for his own exploration of the medium. By any standards this work is a marvel worthy to stand close by its exemplars as one of the finest chamber works of the 1820s. The seriousness with which the Juilliard Quartet takes the Quartet is apparent throughout. Its playing of the major-key introduction has a superb homogeneity and their treatment of the main Allegro vivace generates real tragic passion; an interpretative highpoint is their near-vocal rendition of the fugal passage shortly after the start of the slow movement. If anything their playing of the slightly later E flat major Quartet is even more strikingly characterised, to the extent that their expressiveness, always impressive for its unanimity, sometimes robs the music of its impetus.
No one could mistake the distinction of the Juilliard Quartet’s performances and they certainly repay careful listening. But some listeners, like me, may find their readings, particularly in the E flat String Quartet, rather too self-indulgent. Admirable though the Juilliard’s are, I find the Cherubini Quartet’s performance of these works in its complete recording of Mendelssohn’s quartets satisfies in a more rounded way. Jan Smaczny