MENDELSSOHN STRING QUARTETS
The Eroica Quartet
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
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.
THIS CD FROM CROTCHET
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