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

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COMPOSERS: Mendelssohn
LABELS: Calliope
WORKS: String Quartet in E flat, Op. 12; String Quartet in A minor, Op. 13
PERFORMER: Talich Quartet
By some strange alignment of the planets, at least four versions of these two quartets have tumbled off the presses in the last few months. Not that I’m complaining. These youthful works are among the most glorious of all 19th-century quartets; and the A minor, composed when Mendelssohn was just 18, is an astonishingly original response to the challenge of the late Beethoven quartets. With propulsive tempi and a vast palette of dynamics and colour (including a characteristic Viennese sweetness in lyrical melodies), the Alban Berg Quartet, recorded live, seems set on stressing the work’s Beethovenian affinities: the outer movements are driven with almost feverish urgency, and even the Adagio non lento – less sustained than usual – has a restless edge, growing to an intense, agitated climax at the end of the fugato. The Talich, with a slightly grainier ensemble sonority, also chooses swiftish tempi and brings plenty of passion to the music, though its players find more space for elegance and Mendelssohnian pathos and fantasy. And in the clearer Calliope recording the lower strings (a wonderfully throaty viola) have more immediacy in the often contrapuntal textures. I was less convinced by the Berg’s fast tempo for the first movement of the more mellow E flat Quartet: some of the phrasing seems almost jerky here, and an impatience to move on spoils the potentially magical easing-in to the recapitulation. The Talich, balancing strong forward momentum with a sensitive response to the music’s pools of mystery and stillness, is exemplary in the first movement, and brings an ideal Mendelssohnian blend of fire and lyrical grace to the finale. Both groups keep the Andante flowing well, banishing all suggestions of cosiness or complacency. But the Talich is ultra-swift and a tad charmless in the Intermezzo, where their Viennese rivals play with marvellous scherzando delicacy. Despite the odd proviso, both these new recordings rank high on any shortlist. And in some moods I’d choose them, especially the Talich, over the beautifully transparent performances on gut strings from the Mosaïques (Astrée Auvidis), whose measured tempi tend to highlight the music’s elegiac lyricism at the expense of its passion and volatility. Richard Wigmore