Mendelssohn String Quartets Nos 1 & 2.
Saturated in Beethoven, youthfully experimental – these are still two of the finest string quartets written in the nineteenth century. Op. 13 (actually the first to be composed) is especially original: a turbulent, passionate work framed by a prelude and postlude based on a song – a product of an early love affair. The slow movement alone is enough to counter the notorious Wagnerian assertion that Mendelssohn lacked emotional depth; it’s there in plenty, if the players are prepared to do more than skim over the surface.
There is nothing superficial about these performances. One senses deep, unforced absorption right from the start of both works. The sound of the gut strings (brightly recorded), and the relatively sparing vibrato, might create problems for one or two listeners; but the expressive manner is not significantly different from most conventional modern performances. There is no suggestion of cultivating ‘period style’ for its own sake, and no hurried tempos in slow movements – the music always has time to breathe.
Both performances are refreshing and stimulating, particularly enjoyable in the “Intermezzo” movements Mendelssohn provides in place of the scherzo or the more classical minuet (here Mendelssohn is indebted to nobody). But after Op. 13 I went back and played the Adagio non lento in the Carmina Quartet recording (Denon, 3/92 – nla); and, yes, my memory wasn’t playing tricks – there is an extra something there: an inner intensity, a warmth of feeling that radiates through the notes. For Op. 13 that has to be the top recommendation, and the coupling with the powerful F minor Quartet, Op. 80, makes excellent sense. But the Mosaiques’ Op. 12 has plenty of vitality and appreciation of the young Mendelssohn’s subtleties. I don’t know of a version available at present that makes a better case for the work. In the absence of the Carmina Quartet, this new version goes to the top of the list.'