Monday 27 January 2014

The Mandelring Quartet’s third volume of their cycle of the complete string chamber music of Mendelssohn for Audite shows them on track to become one of the finest surveys yet recorded

The first two volumes of the Mandelring Quartet’s cycle of the complete string chamber music of Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) for Audite have been a resounding success in performances that brought vibrancy, sparkle and perfect ensemble, giving every indication that this could be one of the finest cycles of the Mendelssohn quartets to have been committed to disc.

Volume III of this survey brings us the String Quartet in E flat major, Op.44, No.3 together with posthumously published Four Pieces for String Quartet, Op.81 and the Octet in E flat major, Op.20 where the Mandelrings are joined by the Quartetto di Cremona who have already brought us Volume I of their complete Beethoven Quartet cycle for Audite in performances of fluency, sparkle and passion.
Expectations then were very high when I came to listen to Volume III of this cycle.

audite 92.658 (SACD)

Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in E flat major, Op.44, No.3 dates from 1838. Rhythmically reminiscent of Beethoven’s Quartet in C, Op.59, No.3, the Allegro vivace receives a lovely crisp opening, demonstrating again, the Mandelrings taut precision. There is such spirited playing here with the music often hurtling ahead. In the hushed moments the Mandelrings show tremendous dexterity and control, quite beautiful playing, bringing so much joy to the music. It is terrific how these players respond to each other. There are some lovely textures and colouring of phrases as the movement heads towards the coda.

The Scherzo. Assai leggiero vivace receives such a light touch as it dashes along, at times bringing a hushed tension to the music. This is beautifully worked out playing, with this Quartet pulling every nuance from Mendelssohn’s exquisite textures.

The Mandelrings bring a lovely flow to the Adagio non troppo, always allowing the music to move ahead, as though not wishing to dwell on a deeper emotion. Surely this is what Mendelssohn intended by his marking non troppo. It certainly brings, in many ways, a greater depth to the music. The Mandelrings use of vibrato is so sensitively chosen.

The composer, E J Moeran, once told a young composer that, when writing for string quartet, one should remember that one is not just writing for four instruments but sixteen strings. Mendelssohn demonstrates this so well in the Molto allegro con fuoco, with the Mandelrings bringing out every line of the texture. There is terrific phrasing and some lovely flourishes as this movement rushes forward with spontaneity combined with a fine control in the slower, quieter moments. There is a beautifully controlled section before the music heads to the spirited coda with some very fine playing indeed.  

The Mandelrings really know how to lift this music off the page.

Mendelssohn left two movements of an incomplete string quartet which, along with a Cappricio in E minor (1843) and a Fugue in E flat major (1827), were published posthumously as Four Pieces for String Quartet, Op.81. The Mandelring Quartet gives us the two movements from the incomplete quartet with No.1 Tema con Variazioni. Andante Sostenuto, with its gentle opening theme followed by a set of variations, with the Mandelrings bringing out a feeling of a constantly changing emotional state, with, nevertheless, a quiet, restrained end. In No.2 Scherzo. Allegro leggiero, this Quartet hold a little in reserve, bringing a slightly wistful nature as the music moves to its jaunty little coda, so beautifully done.

There is no shortage of fine recordings of Mendelssohn’s Octet in E flat major, Op.20. Bringing two such fine String Quartets together certainly raises one’s expectations.

Whilst Louis Spohr in his double quartets often used his players antiphonally, Mendelssohn largely used his forces in an orchestral way. Certainly, in this performance, these players bring an almost orchestral weight and depth to their playing in the  Allegro moderato ma con fuoco. They provide a lovely rich, silken texture to the opening before building wonderfully to each little climax. There is a lovely quiet section part way through where these players achieve such finely hushed playing and some lovely textures, at other times pointing up the many little dynamics.

With the Andante the Mandelrings and Cremonas bring a feeling of exquisite restraint, picking up the moments of passion in the outbursts. Again there are lovely textures and some superb colouring in the quieter moments of this lovely andante.

A lightness of touch from these players and a sensitive control of dynamics make this Scherzo follow naturally out of the rather mysterious andante, still keeping some of the withdrawn mystery. These players do not hold back in the Presto where they show taut, dynamic playing with more lovely textures as they slowly but surely build up the drama as the music hurtles to its coda.

The competition is bound to increase with a recording that includes not only quartets but also the Octet. There are certainly many fine alternative performances of the Octet. However, this series is still on track to become one of the finest surveys yet recorded.

The recordings for the String Quartet and Two Pieces for String Quartet are first rate.  Perhaps the Octet recording doesn’t show up so much transparency of textural lines but there is a fine sense of depth that still makes this a very good recording.

I look forward to the final instalment in this series which will bring us Mendelssohn’s two string quintets where the Mandelring Quartet will be joined by violist Gunter Teuffel.

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