Mendelssohn: String Quartets Nos. 2 and 6 (CD review)

Also, Fanny Mendelssohn: String Quartet in E flat major. Quatuor Ebene. Virgin Classics 50999 464546 2 1.

In all probability, most people even vaguely interested in classical music would recognize some of the music of Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), maybe bits of the Third or Fourth Symphonies or A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the very least. Even so, it’s doubtful those same folks would recognize much or anything from Mendelssohn’s older sister, the composer and conductor Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-1847). The two siblings were soul mates, however, and brother Felix would always let sister Fanny be the first to hear his newest compositions. Now, here’s the thing: Fanny wrote over 400 pieces of music herself, although given the times, her family would not allow her to perform them during her lifetime. To help remedy the situation to some small degree, the present album offers two string quartets by the more-famous brother and one by the sister.

As I said about the Ebene Quartet the last time I encountered them on disc, they constitute a fine group of performers who exhibit plenty of virtuosity, dash, charm, precision, and poise. The four members of this relatively young, French ensemble are Pierre Colombet, violin; Gabriel Le Magadure, violin; Mathieu Herzog, viola; and Raphael Merlin, cello. They have been playing together for several years now and are becoming quite well known, not only for their playing of classical music but for their performances of jazz, which led some critics to fear the two genres might come into conflict in the ensemble’s more-serious interpretations. Apparently, it hasn’t happened. Not here, certainly. The Ebene Quartet’s playing is as fluid and cultured as any I have heard, and if anything their interest in jazz has only helped hone the spontaneity of their classical skills, which remain smooth and sophisticated.

In any case, they begin the album with Felix Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 13, a youthful work begun when the composer was still in his teens (begun around 1827 and completed in 1832). The composer wrote it in tribute to the death of Beethoven, basing it on a song he had recently written. Although No. 2 is an early work, it is quite mature in tone, and the Ebene Quartet play it with a simple, refined eloquence. The second-movement Adagio non lento is particularly expressive in the hands of these players, with a beautifully executed melodic line; and the Presto finale comes across with vigor, drama, energy, and, finally, repose.

Next comes Fanny Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in E flat major from 1834, which one notes immediately is quite a bit shorter than either of her brother’s quartets on the disc, almost by half. There is also a more plaintive, melancholic mood about the piece, evident from the start. Fanny attributed her inspiration to Beethoven’s late chamber works. The Ebene Quartet play it with an intense commitment, while maintaining a high quotient of gentle Romanticism. The Allegretto has an especially lilting charm, and the finale is a flurry of high spirits.

The program ends with Felix Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 6 in F minor, Op. 80, from 1847, a piece he referred to as his “Requiem for Fanny,” who had died that year. Felix would die that year as well. The quartet is an extraordinarily heartfelt work, and the Ebene players perform it with dignity and passion. Unlike what you might expect--for the piece to sound somber and funereal--it seems more filled with a striking anguish than anything else. Nonetheless, there is a touching Adagio to remind us of the composer’s bereavement, followed by an equally moving conclusion. The Ebene Quartet remind us throughout that this is a work expressive of grief and loss.

The venue in which the Virgin Classics engineers recorded the music in 2012, the Ferme de Villefavard en Limousin, France, seems ideally suited to the warmth and vibrancy of the Ebene Quartet and the music they make. The place is a converted granary in the tranquil French countryside, and what better an environment for the music of the Mendelssohns? The audio engineers miked things fairly closely, yet there is a good sense of place and space in the recording, with a fine touch of hall resonance and ambience. The quartet members do appear spread out rather widely across the speakers, making them sound somewhat larger than life; still, there is a good clarity about the sonics that more than makes up for any lack of ultimate realism. The violin sound can become a tad forward at times, too; it’s never out of character with the distance to the players, however, so it presents no problem. Detailing is always exemplary, and there is a good separation of instruments.

To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa