MENDELSSOHN String Quartets Nos 1 & 4
Since their Zemlinsky recordings (Naxos, 10/13, 9/14), the Escher Quartet has acquired a new second violinist: Aaron Boyd. With Mendelssohn, they enter a rather more crowded arena, though relatively few groups have included the E flat major Quartet, written when the composer was 14. It’s a work that shows diligence and a confidence with classical form without yet having attained the individuality that was to set the Octet alight. The Escher are fervent advocates of this early quartet, imbuing the slow movement with a luxuriant warmth. They clearly see the Minuet as a throwback to those of Haydn, wheras the period-instrument Eroica Quartet, at a noticeably faster pace on Harmonia Mundi, see the glimmer of a scherzo in the air. The prim and proper fugue that closes the work is arguably more effective at the Eroica’s fleeter speed.
Pacing can be an issue for the Escher elsewhere too. They take the smoulderingly beautiful slow movement of Op 12 so spaciously that it begins to sound contrived, overblown. The Alban Berg and Quatuor Mosaïques are all the more effective for a slightly plainer approach. And I wonder whether the ‘Canzonetta’ works best when there’s slightly more relationship between the tempi of the outer and middle sections – though there’s no question of the Escher’s virtuosity in the più mosso.
In Op 44 No 2 they find just the right momentum for the first movement and a pleasing clarity of texture. The ricocheting notes of the Scherzo can come to seem a bit violent (it’s perhaps no coincidence that this is a trademark of the Emerson, who have championed the Escher); the Leipzig are notably more subtle here. But put the Escher alongside the Elias and you find in the latter playing that takes more risks, such is the security of the group as a whole. Perhaps the Escher’s new line-up simply needs a little more time, for there’s no doubting the players’ musicianship or technical ability, which are caught with admirable immediacy.