ALBUM TITLE: Mendelssohn Complete String Quartets
WORKS: String Quartets
PERFORMER: Emerson Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: 477 5370
Mendelssohn’s string quartets are at last getting their due as the greatest quartet cycle between Schubert and Bartók. As renowned completists, the Emersons give us not only the ‘standard’ works but also the likeable E flat major Quartet he wrote at 14, and cap the set with the miraculous Octet, using technical trickery to play all eight parts themselves.
Anyone who knows the Emerson’s Shostakovich or Beethoven cycles will expect performances of panache, colouristic subtlety and high visceral excitement. The players do not disappoint, whether in the Allegros – urgent and impassioned without ever being hectic – or the profound, sometimes disquieting tenderness of the slow movements, where they strike a fine balance between Classical poise and Romantic yearning. They understand, too, that the quicksilver scherzos in Op. 44 Nos 2 and 3 have an underlying toughness, even fierceness. The Emerson’s sharp ear for textural detail ensures that we hear clearly every felicity of Mendelssohn’s scoring, including those characteristic dark shafts of viola colour. Another feature of the playing is their discreet use of portamento, eschewed by most of their rivals, but poignantly expressive in a movement like the Adagio of the late F minor Quartet.
In several works, especially Op. 12 and the A minor, Op. 13 – Mendelssohn’s astonishing homage to late Beethoven – the Emerson is as penetrating as any version available. Overall, though, I still prefer the Leipzig Quartet, who find more reflective grace and mystery amid the muscular energy of a movement like the opening of Op. 44 No. 3 and, more crucially, bring more desperate abandon to the outer movements of the F minor, where for once the Emerson sound a shade too contained. As to the Octet, if you forget the gimmicry, the Emerson give a powerful, exhilarating reading, marred for me by just a touch of steely slickness in the scherzo and the finale. The Leipzig Quartet and friends are lighter and more playful here. Best of all, though, is the period-instrument performance by Hausmusik, combining fire, dancing delicacy and shimmering transparency of texture. Richard Wigmore