April 17, 2008


Mendelssohn: String Quartets Nos. 1, 4 and 6. New Zealand String Quartet: Helene Pohl and Douglas Beilman, violins; Gillian Ansell, viola; Rolf Gjelsten, cello. Naxos. $8.99.

      This first volume of a planned set of all the Mendelssohn quartets showcases some remarkably intuitive playing, which includes fine ensemble work and a very natural-sounding ebb and flow of the musical discussion among the members of the New Zealand String Quartet: first one comes to the fore, then the next, and it all happens as naturally as if the musicians had been playing in this configuration all their lives rather than for a “mere” 14 years.

      The fluidity of the musical discourse is put to particularly good use in these three Mendelssohn quartets, which range from the bucolic to the most relentlessly driving music the composer ever wrote. In fact, most listeners would do well to hear this CD on three separate occasions, so different are the emotions the works convey.

      Quartet No. 1 in E flat major, actually the second that Mendelssohn composed, is the gentlest of the three and the sweetest (the second subject in the first movement is actually marked dolce). Written when Mendelssohn was 20, it exudes pleasantries throughout, not only in the well-known Canzonetta that takes the place of a second-movement scherzo, but also in a structure that has the finale conclude with the same coda used in the first movement – a knitting-together that seems not in the last forced. Here the New Zealand String Quartet plays with unobtrusive precision, providing just enough energy to keep the music flowing but not so much as to overwhelm its underlying placidity.

      Quartet No. 4 in E minor – this was the third composed; the publication-vs.-composition numbering is as confusing for the quartets as for the symphonies – is a strong work that shows significantly more maturity than does No. 1. The E minor quartet dates to Mendelssohn’s 28th year and was written shortly after his marriage – in the same key as his Violin Concerto. This is a passionate quartet, in which episodes of grace and tranquility abound – but only for purposes of contrast. The second and third movements are reminiscent of the mood of other Mendelssohn works – A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Songs without Words, respectively – and the finale ends with a hard-driving coda that the New Zealand String Quartet plays con fuoco, as it is marked, without overdoing the intensity or overstating the emotionalism.

      But the one performance on this CD that is truly brilliant is that of the sixth quartet, in F minor – one of Mendelssohn’s last compositions, written four months after the sudden death of his adored sister, Fanny, and only two months before his own. This is a work of almost shocking drama, the unceasing intensity of its first movement being insufficient to communicate the composer’s pain – so that he keeps the same key for the second movement, building an edifice of unremitting sorrow that is only partly relieved by the lovely, resigned Adagio. Just as listeners catch their breath, the finale redoubles the sense of tragedy and the work rushes to a dark-as-can-be conclusion. The New Zealand String Quartet does not let up for an instant throughout the 25 minutes of this quartet, digging ever-deeper into a well of emotion and interpretative mastery to produce a truly stunning performance. Listeners be warned: the CD places this work first, but few will want to listen immediately to Quartet No. 1 (placed second) after hearing Quartet No. 6. Yet it is safe to say that those who hear this first installment of the New Zealand String Quartet’s Mendelssohn cycle will be waiting eagerly for the next.

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