MENDELSSOHN; GRIEG String Quartets
Quintessential Mendelssohn this, replete with feather-light textures, tightly-knit arguments, tender melodies and charm to spare: the mood is invariably carefree, the temperature warm and the pulse fluid. Yet with Op. 80 the blackest of personal tragedies (Fanny Mendelssohn's death) prompts a degree of musical drama that would have been startling even in late Schubert. Mendelssohn's string quartets are therefore more truly representative than his symphonies, more ambitious than his piano works and finer by far than most of his songs. And if the best of his choral works can challenge them for equal billing, the quartets alone are comfortably digestible within a three-hour time-span.
However, their exact chronology is confusing. The very first quartet, a modest but appealing piece in E flat, was composed in 1823 when Mendelssohn was just 14 years old, whereas the official 'First' (1829) was in fact written roughly two years after the so-called 'Second' (1827). Thereafter, the cycle reaches a peak of mastery with the three Op. 44 works, the feverish Op. 80 and four separate pieces gathered together under a single opus (81). Beethoven is a consistent influence, but a few seconds' worth of sampling leaves us in no doubt as to the composer's true identity.
There are now five Mendelssohn quartet cycles available on CD, with only the Cherubini Quartet omitting the early work in E flat. The Coull favour smooth delivery and limpid phrasing; their approach is generally more relaxed than their rivals, and they never force the argument or trivialize Mendelssohn's lighter movements. I particularly liked their handling of Op. 13's finale, the way they caress the brief contrapuntal passage at 1'56'' (first disc, track 8), while their handling of Op. 12's Brahmsian Andante espressivo (track 11) has plenty of warmth. The Op. 44 set also goes well (all three important first-movement repeats are observed), especially the Adagio non troppo of Op. 44 No. 2 (second disc, track 7) and the parallel movement in Op. 44 No. 3 (third disc, track 3). The Op. 80, though, is rather better served elsewhere (the Melos Quartet performance is particularly arresting), although the Coull do bring an appropriate sense of foreboding to the Allegro assai's middle section (track 6). Generally speaking, slow movements fare best, while Mendelssohn's varieties of Allegro occasionally lack friction and 'bite'.
Telling contrast is afforded by the equally youthful Shanghai Quartet, whose brightly-lit account of Op. 13 suggests a rich store of interpretative potential. Sample 5'20'' into the Adagio non lento (track 2)—where the leader plays a brief, expressive cadenza—and then turn to the Coull in the same passage (4'58'' into track 6 on the first disc), and it's the Shanghai who suggest the greater cumulative intensity. Theirs is a sizzling, multicoloured performance, fully on a par with the Melos or Cherubini and richly (if rather cavernously) recorded by Delos. The Grieg coupling is, if anything, even finer, with an Allegro molto first movement that truly is ed agitato, a warming Romanze and a superbly characterized Intermezzo. In fact, I've not heard a more compelling performance of this endearing score since the original Budapest Quartet's trail-blazing HMV 78s from 1937. I certainly look forward to hearing more from this immensely talented ensemble.
As to the Mendelssohn 'cycle' situation, the mid-price Melos set still strikes me as having more gusto, refinement, brilliance and poetry than any available rival, and the analogue sound continues to hold up well. The Coull cycle is granted the fuller recording, and will most likely appeal to those who favour a more relaxed, smoothly-blended approach to this wonderful music. It is also beautifully presented and expertly annotated.'