Notes and Editorial Reviews
This is an Enhanced CD, which contains both regular audio tracks and multimedia computer files.
R E V I E W S
"As the most prominent string quartet in town, the Emerson is working its way through the major literature one box set at a time. The latest installment is this warm, vigorous and intelligent survey of the complete Mendelssohn string quartets, often remarkable music that weds an evolving exploration of form with a Romantic depth of feeling." - New York Times
Should any collectors be without the Mendelssohn String Quartets, here is a set that is either the best yet, or the equal of the best. The first three discs in the set contain all six numbered quartets, and the four short
pieces for string quartet published posthumously as op. 81. These are presented in the order Mendelssohn composed them, so the first disc gives us No. 2, the Fugue, op. 81/4, and No. 1; the second gives us Nos. 4 and 5; and the third gives us No. 3, the Capriccio, op. 81/3, No. 6, Theme and Variations, op. 81/3, and the Scherzo, op. 81/2. The fourth disc, called a bonus because one pays only for the first three, contains the famous Octet and the Quartet in E flat that Mendelssohn composed at age 14. No additional players participated in the Octet; by means of multitrack recording each member of the Emerson Quartet played two parts. The bonus disc also contains a CD-ROM track, a video documentary that lets us see how the group recorded the Octet.
If one plays the bonus disc first, and then proceeds through the others, one can hear Mendelssohn’s development as a composer. His biggest leap is between age 14 and 16. Without prior knowledge, one would probably not recognize the composer of the early quartet—a competent, listenable, but derivative work. The Octet, deservedly one of his most famous compositions, is a powerful combination of brilliance, classical balance, and elfin charm. The Second and First Quartets, written at 18 and 20, are striking for their formal originality, with recurring material reminding one that the divisions into movements are only that, each quartet being a single sustained musical argument.
Ten years and much experience later, Mendelssohn composed three more quartets, drawing closer to the Viennese classics, with repeated expositions and more conventionally shaped movements. But these were hardly reactionary works: part-writing, brilliant enough in his early essays, became dazzling; like Schubert in his last years, Mendelssohn was treating the string quartet as a virtual orchestra. In this regard, it is especially good to have the Quartet in D, published as No. 3 (i.e., op. 44/1), presented where it belongs, as the last of this group, for it is certainly the most daring. It is also the most exuberant, providing the greatest possible contrast in mood to the final F-Minor Quartet of 1847, typical in its splendid construction, but utterly different in mood: a cry of anguish, following the death of his beloved sister.
The Emerson Quartet is old enough to bring the right degrees of feeling and understanding to these works, and still capable of the finest technical performance. Deutsche Grammophon’s recording, supervised and edited by Da-Hong Seetoo, is exemplary, and the notes are more than adequate. We learn, for instance, not only who is playing which part in each performance, but what instrument he is playing as well.
This is particularly relevant for the Octet, where each player performs one part with a 17th- or 18th-century instrument, and his second with a modern instrument made by Samuel Zygmuntowicz of Brooklyn. On listening to their recording, members of the quartet testify that they can scarcely hear any difference among these instruments; I certainly hear none. All blend splendidly, and, along with the superb playing of the self-doubled quartet, make an amazingly clean and sweet Octet.
Regarding the quartets there must still be kind words for other complete sets: the Aurora on Naxos, passionate and brilliant; the charming Ysayë on Decca—another bargain; the poetic Talich on Calliope; and the virtuosic Leipzig on MDG. Owning any of these one might well be satisfied. Collectors without the marvelous Mendelssohn quartets, and especially those who also need an Octet, should seriously think about this new triumph from the Emerson.
Robert McColley, FANFARE
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