Mendelssohn String Quartets – Emerson Quartet

String Quartet No.1 in E flat, Op.12
String Quartet No.2 in A minor, Op.13
String Quartet No.3 in D, Op.44/1
String Quartet No.4 in E minor, Op.44/2
String Quartet No.5 in E flat, Op.44/3
String Quartet No.6 in F minor, Op.80
Andante & Scherzo Op.81/1 & 2

Emerson String Quartet [Eugene Drucker & Philip Setzer (violins); Lawrence Dutton (viola) & David Finckel (cello)]

[Two recitals presented on Saturday and Sunday 12 & 13 March 2005 in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London]

Reviewed by: William Yeoman

Reviewed: 13 March, 2005
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Continuing the South Bank’s Mendelssohn celebration were two evenings’ worth of chamber music, specifically the string quartets (six and the two completed movements of a seventh; the youthful E major Quartet, which The Emerson here excluded from its recital, remained unpublished during the composer’s lifetime). Included as encores, however, were the amazing Capriccio Op.81/3 (Saturday night) and the early Fugue Op.81/4 (Sunday).

Characteristic of Mendelssohn’s music (apart perhaps from the Midsummer Night Dream’s Overture) is its restrained passion: astonishing innovation and craftsmanship that nevertheless refuses to overstep the boundaries of propriety. And while the Emerson Quartet understand those boundaries perfectly, the musicians work within them in a totally unrestrained fashion, making of the musical mould a space for infinite expression. This is evident on The Emerson’s new recording of these works for Deutsche Grammophon, but was even more so in a live context.

The first night began with the Opus 12 in E flat, The Emerson gently but imperiously drawing the audience into Mendelssohn’s soundworld via the slow introduction to the Allegro non tardante before allowing the music to work its magic with a gently turbulent development section, a charming Canzonetta (with its impish trio), a warm and eloquent Andante espressivo and an exciting C minor Molto allegro (which ends in E flat by restating the slow introduction of the work). Here, as throughout both evenings, the string tone was never less than beautiful; the balance and phrasing animated the music beyond its corporeality; and while each player implied the whole work through the command of a huge range of tonal values, the ensemble itself sounded like one instrument – so precise was the playing.

The Op.13 Quartet provided a minor key contrast, the wistful Intermezzo with its plucked and bowed strings and the urgent, gypsy-like Presto in particular showing off The Emerson’s ability to grasp the emotional centre of each movement. The confident and forthright D major quartet ended the recital proper (its charming Andante espressivo recalling the Intermezzo of the previous work); an encore took the shape of the neo-baroque Capriccio and gave the performers to again show off their skill in rendering polyphony with real verve.

The following evening found another gentle (albeit brief) first-movement introduction, this time of the E minor Quartet, establish the mood for the recital, this time darkly dramatic. The wonderful rapid figurations and contrasting ‘Song without Words’ of the Allegro assai appassionato propel forward into a puckish scherzo, an enchanting Andante and a Beethovenian Presto agitato; again, superlatively played, with violist and cellist doing more than their fair share of the work. The Opus 44 E flat followed, neatly though expansively projected, to pave the way for the devastating F minor quartet, written partly in response to the death of Mendelssohn’s beloved sister Fanny. Beset by thickets of thorny counterpoint, painful lyricism and squally modulations, this is undoubtedly the composer’s most overtly Romantic work in the quartet genre, and it’s to The Emerson’s credit that the musicians didn’t hammer this quality home; as mentioned above, they understand the boundaries of the music, and in this instance let it speak for itself while exhibiting a kind of controlled abandon. The Tema con variazioni (Andante) and Scherzo, though written after the F minor Quartet, seemed very lightweight in comparison; which works were themselves subjected to ironic modification by the encore, the youthful but searching homage to Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge, the Fugue in E flat major. This was a fitting end to a superb cycle by one of the foremost string quartets of our time.

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