MENDELSSOHN String Quartets Nos 2 & 3
The Escher Quartet continue their Mendelssohn cycle with two highly contrasting works. This young American group respond particularly vividly to the ebullience of the D major Quartet, Op 44 No 1, digging into the upward arpeggio with which it launches with infectious glee, while the first movement’s coda is uproariously dispatched. Also impressive is their combination of finely honed interaction and a sense of playfulness, which applies equally to the driving finale of this quartet – truly Presto con brio – and the Scherzo from the Four Pieces, Op 81, which is deliciously lightly sprung. The sheer finesse of the players technically is one of the impressive aspects of this group. Where I’m slightly less convinced is in the more poignant moments. Some ensembles find more tenderness in Op 44 No 1’s third-movement Andante, the Leipzig and the Cherubini quartets among them.
In the great early A minor Quartet, Op 13, I’m less won over. The slow introduction itself evolves less organically than in the Elias Quartet’s hands, and the Escher don’t quite achieve the same degree of sheer anguish in Mendelssohn’s most heightened writing. Again, technical ability is not in question and they are suitably propulsive in the tremolo-riven opening to the finale. But what I miss is the sense of really living this music (as opposed to merely playing it): the Ebène Quartet are truly terrifying at this point, while the Elias’s leader, Sarah Bitlloch, isn’t afraid to trade beauty of tone for visceral effect. In the slow movement of Op 13, too, the Ebène extract every last element of feeling; alongside them the Escher sound just a touch polite.