Mendelssohn: String Quartet in A minor, Op. 13; ‘String Quartet in E flat, Op. 44/3

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COMPOSERS: Mendelssohn
LABELS: Arte Nova
WORKS: String Quartet in A minor, Op. 13; ‘String Quartet in E flat, Op. 44/3
PERFORMER: Henschel Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: 82876 57744 2
These two magnificent quartets again make you wonder how Mendelssohn could for so long have been patronised as a charming, amiable lightweight. In the A minor the 18-year-old composer responded with breathtaking mastery to the challenge of Beethoven’s late quartets – then generally regarded as beyond the pale. Yet the music remains utterly characteristic in its restless urgency and lyrical pathos. The E flat Quartet from Op. 44, with its powerful first movement, scurrying nocturnal scherzo and poignantly expressive Adagio, should explode another tired myth: that with Mendelssohn later invariably means inferior. The young Henschel Quartet – three-quarters a family affair – responds excitingly to the music’s passion and coursing energy. The outer movements of the A minor have a tempestuous, almost desperate sweep, bows burning fiercely into the strings. And you won’t hear fierier performances of the fast movements of the E flat. What I sometimes missed in the Henschel’s high-adrenalin playing is lyrical tenderness (in the fast rather than the slow music) and, especially in the A minor’s Intermezzo, the feathery delicacy that is such a crucial feature of Mendelssohn’s sound-world. For true pianissimo playing, a degree more fantasy and more gracious shaping of the cantabile melodies, I’d recommend the elegiac, transparently textured Mosaïques (Astrée) and the more volatile Talich in the A minor, and, in the E flat, the superb recent version from the Leipzig Quartet (reviewed January 2004). But no one will go wrong with these exhilarating, vividly recorded performances. The notes read as if they’ve been translated by dysfunctional computer. But then look at the price. Richard Wigmore