Notes and Editorial Reviews
String Quartets: in D,
CPO 777774 (60:56)
Captain of the DFCS (Dead and Forgotten Composers Society), CPO has here resurrected another buried body, but one that was not yet fully decomposed, for only as recently as issue 36:3, Henry Fogel reviewed a brand new Hänssler SACD of sacred choral works by the exhumed Arnold Mendelssohn (1855–1933). I haven’t seen or
heard the Hänssler disc, but Fogel mentions some confusion in that album’s liner note as to Arnold’s relationship to the famous Mendelssohn, Felix, in which he is said to be a second cousin in one paragraph and a nephew in the next, but neither is right. There were two Arnolds. Clan elder, Moses Mendelssohn, fathered 10 children, two of whom were Nathan and Abraham. The latter was the father of Felix. Nathan was Abraham’s brother and the father of Arnold number one (1817–1850). That would make the first Arnold Felix’s first cousin. Arnold number two, the one we’re dealing with here, was the son of Felix’s second cousin, Wilhelm Mendelssohn (1821–1866). So, let’s see, what is the familial degree of separation between Felix and the son of his second cousin? The best I can make of it from genealogy charts I’ve looked at is that our Arnold was either Felix’s third cousin or his first cousin twice removed. I’m not sure I understand the difference, but either way, he wasn’t Felix’s second cousin, and he definitely wasn’t Felix’s nephew.
Only a very few of the extended Mendelssohn family or their descendants retained their Jewish faith or chose to acknowledge their Jewish ancestry, and Arnold wasn’t one of them. His biography tells us that he studied law and was a practicing lawyer before giving up his barrister’s wig to study music. The 1880s find him moving around a good deal from post to post as church organist, university professor, and conservatory teacher, first in Bonn, next in Bielefeld, then in Cologne, and finally in Darmstadt, where he became church music director. There he remained for a number of years, until he took up a teaching post in 1912 at the conservatory in Frankfurt, where one of his students was Hindemith. Mendelssohn’s worklist includes three operas and a handful of chamber works. But to the extent that he’s remembered at all, it’s for his numerous sacred choral works, for it is said that they revived the tradition of Evangelical Church music.
Again, I haven’t heard the disc of Mendelssohn’s choral works reviewed by Fogel, but Henry describes Mendelssohn as “an extremely conservative composer for his time, particularly in his religious music.” Henry also cites comments made by the composer in the 1930s, shortly before he died,expressing uncensored views of white supremacy, code at the time for Aryan racial purity, which is particularly disturbing in light of the rising tide of anti-Semitism and of Mendelssohn’s own Jewish heritage. It’s ironic, or perhaps poetic justice that despite his Protestant proclamations, all it took was one whiff of the Mendelssohn family name for his works to be banned by the Nazis after his death.
Mendelssohn must have been not only quite prolific (based on the opus numbers in the header), but he must also have worked with considerable speed, for the two string quartets on this disc, separated by 16 opus numbers, were composed within a period of two years, between 1916 and 1918. Note author Matthias Corvin hears in the music the expressive late romanticism and mature chromaticism of Max Reger and Hugo Wolf. For the most part, I wouldn’t disagree, but there are flashes in the passages of running 16th notes and in some of the melodic turns of phrase which suggest to me that Mendelssohn must have known the string quartets of his famous namesake. There’s a moment near the end of the first movement of the D-Major Quartet starting at 9:29, for example, that sounds a lot like the concluding bars to the first movement of Felix Mendelssohn’s E?-Major Quartet, op. 12.
It’s this mix of chromatic harmony and flashbacks to the earlier string quartet styles of Beethoven, F. Mendelssohn, and Schumann that tends to be a bit disorienting. Arnold’s chromaticism is more of a surface feature than it is intrinsic to the music’s fabric, as it is in the works of the above-mentioned Reger and Wolf. But the constant juggling of styles—one moment sounding like something that came from the pen of Schumann and the next sounding like something out of Zemlinsky’s 1896 A-Major String Quartet, op. 4—leaves one with the feeling that Mendelssohn was caught in some sort of time warp in which he was buffeted back and forth between one century and another. None of this is to suggest that either of these quartets doesn’t offer up some very attractive music and moments here and there of arresting beauty. Curiously, the second and slightly later of the two scores seems to reach ever further back to the quartet style of Haydn, with, of course, some unusual melodic and harmonic twists peppering the peppy plainsong.
The Reinhold Quartet, chaired by members of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, was founded in 1996, but apparently the ensemble has not spent much time in the recording studio, for only two prior releases are noted, a 2002 Querstand CD of Haydn, Bruckner, and Dvo?ák quartets, and a more recent Genuin CD titled “The British Book,” containing works by Elgar, Peter Maxwell Davies, and Judith Weir. Neither, as far as I can tell, has been reviewed in
. It’s a shame, really, that we haven’t heard more from the Reinhold Quartet because based on these Mendelssohn quartet performances the ensemble is truly excellent, exhibiting none of the somewhat soft-centered tone I’ve noted before in the playing of the Gewandhaus String Quartet, a different ensemble which nonetheless takes its name from the same venerable orchestra of which the Reinhold Quartet players are members.
I wouldn’t necessarily say that CPO has struck gold once again, this time with Arnold Mendelssohn, but based on the opus numbers of these two quartets, should the company decide to keep mining this particular vein, it would appear that there’s a lot more to be unearthed. A recording of the composer’s Violin Concerto would be welcome. Mendelssohn’s quartets are definitely worth hearing, and in performances as fine as these, the disc can definitely be recommended to chamber music mavens curious to explore the outer fringes of the early 20th-century repertoire.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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