MENDELSSOHN String Quartets Nos 1 & 2
The Cecilia Quartet came to international attention when they won the 2010 Banff Quartet Competition. These days they combine an international touring schedule with a position as ensemble-in-residence at the University of Toronto. For their first Mendelssohn recording they refreshingly choose two of the lesser-played middle quartets. Lesser-played but in no way lesser masterpieces, and from the opening upwards-sweeping arpeggio of Op 44 No 1, the Cecilia prove to be compelling advocates. They find a fine balance between the composer’s skittish qualities and his tenderer side, resulting in notably open-hearted readings. Their tremolos – such a favourite device of Mendelssohn – seem to come in 57 varieties, while even at fortissimo textures remain open and airy, thanks to their minutely considered voicings, conveyed via a sympathetic recording.
Highlights are many: the slow movement of Op 44 No 1 (which forms an enchanting encore to the Elias’s Wigmore Hall Live recital), for instance, in which the first violin’s fulsome melody is perfectly balanced against pizzicato viola and cello; here the Cherubini make less of the pizzicato accompaniment, while the Escher are a tad more deliberate, speed-wise. The Cecilia’s pacing of the same quartet’s finale is also outstanding – with a real sense of presto yet still having time to phrase expressively. Both the Escher and Cherubini have a real drive here but slightly less variety in their tonal palette.
The second quartet is just as engaging, its first movement given with affection without becoming saccharine, Mendelssohn’s many transformations of the yearning opening motif inviting a response of great variety from the Cecilia. I only wish that they’d included the exposition repeat (also missing from the first movement of Op 44 No 1). The Elias take this movement strikingly slowly but lend it an introversion that is enormously effective; the Cherubini and Eroica, also relatively spacious, are less heart-on-sleeve. The Cecilia capture the innocent quality of the slow movement’s opening, subtly reacting as Mendelssohn’s harmonic language darkens. And, as in the finale of Op 44 No 1, they combine energy with finely pointed details. A terrific achievement.