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:


JJP

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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 John 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.

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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa