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Mendelssohn: String Quartets Nos. 2 & 6

Album Summary

>Mendelssohn, Felix : Quartet for Strings no 2 in A minor, Op. 13
>Mendelssohn, Felix : Quartet for Strings no 6 in F minor, Op. 80
>Mendelssohn, Felix : Capriccio in E minor, Op. 81 no 3

Notes & Reviews:

Though Mendelssohn was still a teenager when he wrote his second quartet, Op.13, he was already an experienced composer of chamber music. He wrote the work two years after Ludwig van Beethoven published his last quartets. Mendelssohn was fascinated by them, carefully studied the scores and included many quotes from Beethoven’s quartets in his own opus 13. His sixth and final quartet, Op.80, was composed after the death of his sister, which was a devastating blow to Mendelssohn. The quartet was also his last major composition, as he died only two months after its completion. The Modigliani Quartet offers thoughtful and inspired performances of these cornerstone works.

"This is only the third recording by the young (founded 2003) Modigliani Quartet. Their first album featured Mendelssohn as well, the sunny Quartet Op. 44 No. 1, along with Schumann's equally sunny Quartet Op. 41. On the current disc from Mirare, the Modigliani tackles Mendelssohn's two most highly regarded quartets, both of them dramatic, even fiery, and lamenting.

Though published as Mendelssohn's Quartet No. 2 and with a later opus number (by one) than Quartet No. 1 in E-flat Major, Op. 13 was actually Mendelssohn's first mature string quartet. (A quartet written when Mendelssohn was fourteen was later disowned by the composer.) Written a few months after Beethoven's death in 1827, Op. 13 is a clear tribute to the master, drawing inspiration from Beethoven's Quartets Op. 95 and 132 especially. Like Op. 132, Mendelssohn's quartet begins with a ruminative A-major introduction before launching into the A-minor Allegro vivace. Mendelssohn's introduction is based on a song by him called Frage ("Question"), whose first three notes pose the question "Ist es wahr?" ("Is it true?"). This recalls the question Beethoven wrote over the first three notes in the last movement of his Op. 135 Quartet: "Muß es sein? " ("Must it be?"). Mendelssohn's three-note phrase returns, in cyclic fashion, at the end of his quartet's last movement, which, though cast in A minor, ends daringly in the major key, just as the quartet began. There are other tributes to Beethoven along the way, including the fugato in the slow movement, modeled on Beethoven's Op. 95 Quartet. Mendelssohn's restless finale also recalls the last movement of Beethoven's Op. 95, though the recitative with which the finale begins mimics the start of the finale to Beethoven's Op. 132.

With so many debts to the older master, it's remarkable that the character of Mendelssohn's quartet is so different, so entirely Mendelssohn's own brand of early Romanticism, where tender lyricism and fiery drama meld in a uniquely Mendelssohnian blend. The most characteristic movement is the third, a lilting intermezzo with a central section in the vein of Mendelssohn's patented elfin scherzos.

Bookending Mendelssohn's contribution to quartet literature is Op. 80, written in 1847 shortly after the composer learned of the death of his beloved sister Fanny. The first movement is a whirlwind of fretting, restless energy, lacking any sort of comfort. And none is offered in the second movement, nominally a scherzo but with not a hint of Mendelssohn's usual fairy dust. Instead, we have a sort of witches' dance, chilly and macabre in feeling. Respite of a sort comes in the elegiac slow movement. Tinged with sad nostalgia, it's a heart-felt lament for Fanny. The last movement is again passionately restless in the manner of the finale of Schubert's Death and the Maiden Quartet. Like Schubert, who here confronted his own impending death, Mendelssohn sang his own swan song as well as Fanny's; he wouldn't live long enough to hear the quartet premiered.

The Modigliani Quartet is just about perfect in the Op. 13 Quartet, capturing all the brash youthfulness of Mendelssohn's conception, its mercurial mixture of emotions. The same can be said for the performance of the Capriccio, a single quartet movement that was later collected together with three others into a suite designated Op. 81. With its wistful opening and dancing fugal finale, it's an attractive makeweight.

Initially, I thought the Modigliani's reading of Op. 80 just a trifle restrained for a work so freighted with angry questioning. But subsequent listening sessions have revealed a subtle performance marked by careful dynamic and rhythmic shading, a nuanced use of rubato. If I want to be grabbed from the very first note, I'll still turn to the Aurora Quartet on Naxos, but there is much to be said for a performance that insinuates rather than shouts, especially when it's accompanied by such beautiful playing as the Modigliani is capable of.

Mirare's recording is close and vivid enough to catch some expressive intakes of breath by the players. It also has enough airiness and amplitude to suggest the church in which it was taken down. Altogether, an impressive rendering of some of Mendelssohn's finest chamber music."-audaud.com

All Music Guide - Mike Brownell
Written some 20 years apart, the first and final string quartets of Felix Mendelssohn were completed a short time after the death of Beethoven (Op. 13) and his beloved sister Fanny (Op. 80). Whether the composer had these two influential events in mind specifically when composing his two tragic, minor quartets is far from certain, but given the emotional intensity and tumult contained in their scores, it's easy for listeners to imagine how Mendelssohn might have been impacted by these two tragic deaths. The Quatuor Modigliani, a young ensemble formed in 2003 and subsequently capturing a number of important chamber music awards, tackles these two masterworks of the repertoire on this 2010 Mirare album. In addition to their exceptionally clean technique and precise intonation, Modigliani possesses sublime and uncommon control over its vibrato. Rather than applying it perfunctorily across every note, the group incorporates it as an expressive technique as important as dynamics or rubato. Listen to the glasslike stillness achieved with the sparse vibrato in the opening of Op. 13 and the contrastingly intense but tight use in the Op. 80 Finale. Modigliani has already achieved an impressively blended sound, one in which each instrument is clearly audible while simultaneously meshing. Dynamics are applied with pinpoint accuracy. Yes, the Quatuor Modigliani is indeed an ensemble to watch in the future. In the meantime, sit back and enjoy an exceptionally captivating recording of these moving quartets.

Notes & Reviews:

Recording information: l'église de Bon Secours Paris XI (05/2010).


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Works Details

>Mendelssohn, Felix : Quartet for Strings no 2 in A minor, Op. 13
  • Running Time: 30 min. 2 sec.
  • Period Time: Romantic
  • Written: 10/26/1827

>Mendelssohn, Felix : Quartet for Strings no 6 in F minor, Op. 80
  • Running Time: 24 min. 23 sec.
  • Period Time: Romantic
  • Form: Chamber Music
  • Written: 09/1847

>Mendelssohn, Felix : Capriccio in E minor, Op. 81 no 3
  • Running Time: 5 min. 35 sec.
  • Period Time: Romantic
  • Written: 07/05/1843