Mendelssohn: The Complete String Quartets

January 30, 2005

Trust the Emerson Quartet to do nothing by halves. This 4-CD set presents all of Mendelssohn's quartets, including one written at 14, the five pieces Op. 81, as well as the Octet.

About the Album


This set should disprove the assertion that Mendelssohn, a sensational prodigy, blossomed young and never developed further. The difference in compositional skill and emotional depth between the early and late quartets is unmistakable; the miracle is that he could write the Octet at 16. The quartets are of uneven quality: Op. 44 No. 3 is distinctly inferior to the more-familiar Nos. 1 and 2; of the two Fugues Op. 81, the later one is far better. The quartets Op. 12 and 13 (written in reverse order) pay homage to Beethoven in Mendelssohn's very own romantic voice. Op. 80 is masterful although perhaps less disciplined: written just after his beloved sister Fanny's death and shortly before his own, it is a turbulent, heart-rending outcry of anguish. Some of the most-magical moments occur in the inimitable Scherzi and Intermezzi. The performances are vintage Emerson: impeccable individually and together, beautiful in sound, clear, carefully worked out. Although generally a little cool, they can rise to considerable warmth and passion. Not surprisingly, the best pieces elicit the most involved, exciting playing. As always, the violinists switch parts, but the whole group also alternates old Italian and modern American instruments, for the players have a surprise in store: they give the Octet a new twist by "doubling" on all eight parts through a complicated process of over-dubbing (a documentary video of the recording process is included). Here, using the different instruments is intended to combine the old and the new and to give the voices more-distinct timbres. However, the differences throughout are imperceptible. The idea of playing the Octet with themselves, so to speak, is intriguing, but the result is disappointing. Hearing four rather than eight individual voices is disconcerting, and worse, the balance is completely awry, especially in the corner movements. The busy tremolo accompaniment makes the middle register thick and heavy, the tone gets rough, important lines are obscured, and the Quartet's customary admirable textural transparency is lost. And even a cellist as splendid as David Finckel cannot save the opening of the Fugue from sounding like a growl. This may be a triumph of recording technology, but it adds nothing to the music or the performance. --Edith Eisler

4 disc set with DVD

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