Notes and Editorial Reviews
See previous volumes in this set.
Volume 1 Naxos 8570001
Volume 2 Naxos 8570002
No. 3 in D,
New Zealand Str Qrt
NAXOS 8.570003 (68:53)
33:4, I was favorably impressed by the second installment in the New Zealand String Quartet’s Mendelssohn cycle for Naxos. This is the third and, I would guess, final volume in the series. The first volume was apparently not sent for review because it does not show up in the Archive. Because the numbering of Mendelssohn’s works is so out of sync with their chronology—the string quartets being no exception—some recapping of the prior review may be helpful in assessing this survey.
Quartet Number Date completed Vol. Naxos No. in chron. order
E?, op. “0” 1823 3 8.570003
2, op. 13 10/1827 2 8.570002
1, op. 12 9/1829 1 8.570001
4, op. 44/2 6/1837 1 8.570001
5, op. 44/3 2/1838 2 8.570002
3, op. 44/1 7/1838 3 8.570003
6, op. 80 9/1847 1 8.570001
In addition to the above, between 1827 and 1847, Mendelssohn wrote four completely independent, stand-alone movements for string quartet that were published posthumously in 1850 under the single opus number of 81. Playing these pieces together, however, as if they constituted a unified string quartet, is absurd, as noted in my prior review. No composer of this period, who had not taken complete leave of his senses, would have ended a work in the key of E?-Major that began a semitone higher in the key of E Major, and to top it off, written a scherzo in a key (A Minor) that is removed from the key of the concluding movement (E?-Major) by a diminished fifth (aka a tritone). I commended the New Zealand Quartet for at least having the good sense to split these movements up between volumes:
Theme and Variations in E, op. 81/1 3 8.570003
Scherzo in a, op. 81/2 3 8.570003
Capriccio in e, op. 81/3 2 8.570002
Fugue in E?, op. 81/4 2 8.570002
It remains to be seen whether the ensemble will follow up with a fourth volume containing the complete study fugues for string quartet the boy wonder wrote in 1821 at the age of 12. If so, it will be the most complete survey of Mendelssohn’s works for string quartet on disc that I know.
While there have been previous recordings of the early (1823) E?-Major Quartet, this is the first time I’ve seen an opus number of “0” assigned to it. Since it’s not the first work Mendelssohn ever wrote, it would have made more sense to assign the number “0” to the quartet (as in Bruckner’s Symphony No. 0) rather than to the opus number. But done is done. If I were building a library from scratch, I would be completely content with this Naxos survey of Mendelssohn’s string quartets.
Though some 13 years separate the D-Major Quartet that opens the disc from the composer’s famous Octet of 1825, the writing in this much later work recalls the earlier piece. From its initial catapulted launch of an upward arpeggio in the first violin, the first movement is a virtual nonstop volley that plays with the same figure, tossing it between voices and counterpointing it against itself in overlapping entrances. The Menuetto and the Andante espressivo movements sing of the connubial bliss Mendelssohn must have felt having just returned from his honeymoon, while the Presto con brio echoes the first movement of the “Italian” Symphony, completed five years earlier. This was a happy time in the composer’s life, and the D-Major Quartet—the first in a set of three quartets published collectively under the opus number 44 that Mendelssohn dedicated to the Crown Prince Gustav of Sweden—is veritably bursting at the seams with brilliant, scintillating passagework and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of lyrical melody.
That Mendelssohn’s own musical personality is already emerging in his early E?-Major Quartet, op. “0,” should come as no surprise. By 1823, the 14-year-old had already written his 12 string symphonies and had honed his skills at counterpoint and writing for strings. But neither should we imagine that at this young age he is not also relying on and imitating earlier models. The Adagio ma non troppo surely exhibits more than a passing familiarity with the Adagio affetuoso of Beethoven’s F-Major Quartet, op. 18/1, though the adolescent Mendelssohn can’t quite muster Beethoven’s
sturm und drang
outbursts. The Minuetto, on the other hand, is pure Haydn; its humorous hiccupping figure might easily be mistaken for a movement from one of Papa Joseph’s quartets.
According to note author Keith Anderson, the stand-alone Theme and Variations movement that ended up as op. 81/1 was actually written in 1847, the last year of Mendelssohn’s life, and was intended as a movement in a new quartet. As we know, of course, that didn’t happen; instead, what did happen is that it became the first movement in a posthumously patched together “quartet” composed of pieces written much earlier. Thus, the E-Minor Scherzo, op. 81/2, sounds very much like it could be an outtake from the
Midsummer Night’s Dream
The New Zealand String Quartet plays with a great deal of panache. There’s buoyancy, sparkle, and wit in these performances, not to mention engagement on an emotional level without affectation. It goes without saying of course that technical matters of tempo, dynamics, intonation, bowing, breathing, and balance are totally tidy. Indicated repeats are observed, recorded sound is top-notch, and Naxos’s budget price makes this a steal. If you’ve already invested in one or more complete sets by recently reviewed ensembles, such as the Emerson, Gewandhaus, and Pacifica Quartets, you probably don’t need another one. But as I said above, if I were just starting to build a collection, or, even if I just wanted to fill in a gap or two in an existing one, the New Zealand Quartet’s Mendelssohn would be right near the top of my list. Strongly recommended.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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