Mendelssohn: String Quartets, Op. 44/1 & 2

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COMPOSERS: Mendelssohn
LABELS: MDG Gold
WORKS: String Quartets, Op. 44/1 & 2
PERFORMER: Leipzig Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: 307 1168-2
Mendelssohn’s Op. 44 Quartets are less favoured than his two astonishing early works, Opp. 12 and 13, and the tragic late F minor Quartet. But in performances as colourful and imaginative as these they need no apologies. The Leipzig Quartet tears into the opening of No. 1, capturing not only the music’s sonorous brilliance but its underlying febrile intensity. But the players also respond acutely to the movement’s pools of lyricism, and find a wonderfully dusky tone for the mysterious F sharp minor theme in the second group. I have never heard the second movement, a nostalgic take on a Classical minuet, played with such dreamlike delicacy. And the Leipzig Quartet’s mobile tempo and light, buoyant rhythms in the intermezzo emphasise its dual function as slow movement and surrogate scherzo.

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The Second Quartet is just as compelling, the first movement more urgent and agitated than in any rival version, with a powerful sweep to Mendelssohn’s soaring lines and a marvellous lucidity of texture. As ever, the Leipzigers illuminate without exaggeration every subtlety of the composer’s part-writing. The Scherzo, too, is uncommonly vivid, with playing of thrilling precision and bite at the fastest possible tempo. With music-making like this, jibes about Mendelssohn getting excited over nothing in particular seem more than usually impertinent.

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As bonuses we have two of the miscellaneous pieces published as Op. 81: a neo-Bachian Fugue and a fiery Capriccio that uses Baroque counterpoint to more individual ends. Enjoyable versions of the Op. 44 Quartets include the long-admired Melos (DG) and the period-instrument recording from the Eroica Quartet (Harmonia Mundi). But both operate at a lower emotional voltage than the Leipzig Quartet, whose combination of passionate intensity, lyrical grace and felicity of detail now make them a first choice. Richard Wigmore