June 12, 2008


Nielsen: String Quartet in F Minor, op. 5; String Quartet in E-flat Major, op. 14. The Young Danish Quartet. Dacapo. $16.99 (SACD).

Mendelssohn: String Quintet No. 1 in A Major, op. 18; String Quintet No. 2 in B-flat Major, op. 87; Minuetto (original third movement of String Quintet No. 1). Fine Arts Quartet (Ralph Evans and Efim Boico, violins; Yuri Gandelsman, viola; Wolfgang Laufer, cello); Danilo Rossi, viola. Naxos. $8.99.

Haydn: Violin Concertos in C Major, A Major and G Major. Augustin Hadelich, violin; Cologne Chamber Orchestra conducted by Helmut Müller-Brühl. Naxos. $8.99.

      The second volume of Nielsen string quartets by the Young Danish Quartet (violinists Frederik Øland and Rune Sørensen, violist Asbjørn Nørgaard and cellist Carl-Oscar Østerlind) is as amazingly well played as the first; together, the two volumes include all four of Nielsen’s works in this form. This volume includes what would be called the “middle” quartets if Nielsen had numbered them: the F Minor is his second and the E-flat Major his third. Both are fairly early works – from 1890 and 1897-8 respectively – and both receive absolutely stunning playing from four youthful performers who seem to have no trouble at all with the works’ very considerable technical difficulties. The F Minor, as befits its key, is intense and storm-tossed, filled with harmonic surprises and near-constant modulations. The E-flat Major has intensity of a different sort, with harmonic and rhythmic complexity, a stirring Presto section midway through the third movement (played with wonderful precision on this SACD), and a strong finale bearing one of Nielsen’s very personalized tempo indications: “Allegro Coraggioso.” The four Nielsen quartets are not heard often. The Young Danish Quartet’s renditions show why not – and also argue that in the right set of eight hands, these pieces are packed with beauty and drama just waiting to be expressed.

      Mendelssohn’s expressiveness, it has often been said, changed little in his lifetime, and this is why he is not more highly thought of as a composer: everything he wrote was at a high level, but the level changed little from start to finish. This is a somewhat unfair characterization of Mendelssohn, but certain of his pieces lend it credibility – such as his two string quintets. They have a quite wonderful and quite similar level of intensity, and although the instruments share the music more equally in the second (posthumous) quintet than in the first, the overall sound world of both pieces is quite similar. The Fine Arts Quartet and Daniel Rossi give the works lovely, well-balanced readings that fully bring out their tunefulness and emotions. The first quintet dates to 1826, when Mendelssohn was 17 – the same year in which he composed his Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture. Originally a light work, with a second-movement scherzo and third-movement minuetto, this quintet was revised and deepened in 1832 after the death of Mendelssohn’s friend, the young violinist Eduard Rietz. The minuetto was dropped, the scherzo became the third movement, and a lovely “Adagio Sostenuto” was written to be played second, in Rietz’s memory. This CD offers the minuetto as an addendum, making it clear just how much the revision altered the quintet’s character – bringing it closer to that of the second quintet, whose extended “Adagio e Lento” third movement is heartfelt, and the heart of the piece. This quintet’s finale, though, is rather odd, with a stop-and-start quality not characteristic of Mendelssohn, and may be the reason that he did not have the work published in his lifetime. The players on this CD handle all the music quite well, including that problematical “Allegro Molto Vivace,” but there is no getting around the fact that this finale is a somewhat unsatisfying conclusion.

      There is something a bit unsatisfying about the Haydn Violin Concertos, too, and in fact the recording by Augustin Hadelich and the Cologne Chamber Orchestra under Helmut Müller-Brühl, despite many felicitous touches, gets only a (+++) rating. Part of the problem is the music itself: unlike Mendelssohn, Haydn did develop very substantially as a composer throughout his career; but these are early works that have a largely Baroque feeling to them (especially the G Major concerto), and they are simply not distinctive. They are certainly worth owning for Haydn lovers – the composer wrote only four violin concertos, and only these three have survived. But Augustin Hadelich may not be the ideal performer for them. He is a virtuoso player given little chance to display his full range of skills here, with the result that he creates cadenzas that – although not entirely inappropriate – go beyond anything Haydn was composing for these instruments at this time in his life, in the 1760s. These concertos are works that would really benefit from original-instrument performances, which would showcase their intimacy and modest scale, but Müller-Brühl’s ensemble no longer uses period instruments (as it did when it was called Capella Clementina). Conductor and orchestra do still follow period practices in terms of tempos, vibrato and more, but these particular Haydn works would come across better if played more in accordance with the sound as well as the techniques of the time in which they were written.

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