Mendelssohn: String Quartet in E flat, Op. 12; String Quartet in A minor, Op. 13; String Quartet in E flat, Op. posth.

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COMPOSERS: Mendelssohn
LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
WORKS: String Quartet in E flat, Op. 12; String Quartet in A minor, Op. 13; String Quartet in E flat, Op. posth.
PERFORMER: Eroica Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: HMU 907245
Composed months after Beethoven’s late quartets were published, Mendelssohn’s first two acknowledged string quartets clearly reflect the strong influence of the great master. Yet all too often this stylistic lineage provides interpreters with the justification for approaching the music in an overblown, full-blooded manner which seems at odds with the urbane and tempered character of the younger composer. The Eroica Quartet, following the performing conventions of the period, never falls into this trap and thus succeeds in making the teenage Mendelssohn’s achievement sound all the more original. The players effect this in a number of ways, for example by adopting the widest possible tonal colouring, in which vibrato is just one of a number of highly effective expressive devices. Because vibrato is employed much more sparingly than in many other performances, its introduction at certain crucial passages, such as the emotive recitative that opens the finale of Op. 13, has far greater dramatic impact.

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Throughout these performances, I was particularly impressed by the Eroica Quartet’s ability to maintain absolute clarity of texture even in the most orchestral passages, and by its flexible yet spontaneous control of rubato, nowhere better illustrated than in the slow movement of Op. 12, where Peter Hanson moulds the beautifully expressive first violin line without any hint of artifice.

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Direct comparison with the outstanding Cherubini Quartet on EMI shows the Eroica Quartet to be lacking the German ensemble’s dazzling technical brilliance in the central sections of the Canzonetta of Op. 12 and the Intermezzo of Op. 13. But all in all this is a highly auspicious debut disc, making one impatient to hear its accounts of Mendelssohn’s Op. 44 quartets. Erik Levi