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The Eroica Quartet

CD Review

At 14, judging by the rip-roaring finale to his E flat quartet op. posth., Mendelssohn was almost as mature as he would ever be. When two subjects have gone through an exhaustive repertoire of contrapuntal tricks, a third subject is thrown in with such nonchalant assurance that it seems the movement could go on for ever. That's often the bother with fugues, and Mendelssohn finally packs it in with the most apologetic of cadences, almost admitting the genie had mastered him and would not return to the bottle. Perhaps the young Mendelssohn had been led on by Beethoven's finale to op.59, no.3. Certainly in the other two quartets Beethoven looms large, with Ist es wahr? instead of Muss es sein? in op.13, as well as a slow chromatic fugue that pays obvious tribute to op.95. If the op.12 quartet is less overt in homage, certainly Beethoven made possible its formal audacities. The Eroica Quartet is bent on 'rediscovering the vivid performance style of the Romantic era'. It is difficult to define Mendelssohn's position in such matters. Accounts abound of his playing and conducting. George Grove assessed him thus: 'His adherence to his author's meaning, and to the indications given in the music, was absolute. Strict time was one of his hobbies'. Mendelssohn himself reinforces the point when discussing Chopin and Hiller in a letter to his mother of 23 May 1834: '(Both) rather toil in the Parisian spasmodic and impassioned style, too, often losing sight of time and sobriety and of true music; I, on the other hand, do so perhaps too little! Schumann told Wagner that Beethoven no.9 had gone too fast under Mendelssohn. According to Wagner, Mendelssohn claimed that 'a too slow tempo was the devil, and for choice he would rather things were taken too fast'. A letter to Ferdinand David of 19 December 1843 criticises the Berlin Conservatoire orchestra for lack of 'innate vigour and lively enthusiasm'. Such comments could be multiplied towards only the most general idea of what Mendelssohn was after.

The musicianship of the Eroica team is not in question. A fine intelligence has produced impeccable quartetting and superb technical address that result in rare unanimity. A first violin part once belonging to Ferdinand David with his bowings and fingerings, is called in evidence for performance authenticity. In the absence of metronome marks, such instructions as 'Allegro non tardante', 'Adagio non lento' and 'con fuoco' suggest the essential briskness that the Quartet deploys and Mendelssohn probably required. If the result is sometimes more hectic than I personally enjoy, a rhythmic freedom verging on waywardness appeals to me perhaps more than it would have done to Mendelssohn. Dynamics are often given less than their due, though accents are surprisingly heavy, and the very forward recording puts pp at a premium. The performances are therefore more exhilarating than restful; their authenticity must remain a matter of debate and can hardly be assessed by a mere mortal.

Copyright © Robert Anderson, April 14th 1999


harmonia mundi HMU 907245
The Eroica Quartet

Mendelssohn String Quartets
in E flat op.12, in A minor op.13, and in E flat op. posth.



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