Mendelssohn String Quartets Opp 13, 80 & 81
If any genre of Mendelssohn’s output immediately dismisses the slightly cloying image of boy wonder-turned-romantic hero, it is the string quartets. And on this new recording the seering intensity of the Elias’s playing lays bare their shock value.
Twenty years separate the two quartets on this disc, and what a distance he travelled in that time. Yet the Second is already an extraordinarily confident piece, highly Beethovenian (composed in 1827: Mendelssohn was only 18 but he had been busy analysing the late quartets and it shows), but not cowed in any way by his legacy. In the Elias’s reading there is a wonderful story-telling aspect to the Intermezzo, though even they can’t quite compete with the Mosaïques in their red-hot Presto.
Others may be quicker in the remarkable Sixth Quartet but the Elias clearly have four powerful personalities at work – how much more pungent the playing of the first violin is than in the Cherubini Quartet EMI set (though No 6 is out of the catalogue at the moment) – which makes for a reading of great emotional tension, apt given that Mendelssohn wrote it in the wake of his sister Fanny’s death. The dramatic outbursts that punctuate the first movement are as dark as anything he ever wrote. The Elias are equally adept in bringing out the heart-stopping melodies that seem to flow so effortlessly in such movements as the gentle, consolatory theme that opens the slow movement of the Sixth (the odd moment of portamento sensitively done) or the second of the Four Pieces.
Only one aspect of these outstanding performances disturbs – there’s audible sniffing, particularly obvious in the slow movements, captured all too well by the close recording. But don’t let that stand in the way of a major addition to the Mendelssohn discography: the Elias are a quite exceptional quartet.