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ClassicsOnline Home » MENDELSSOHN, Felix: String Quartets, Vol. 1 (New Zealand String Quartet) - String Quartets Nos. 1, 4, 6
With their often turbulent and dark-hued openings, poignant slow movements, elfin Scherzos reminiscent of the music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and tense, thrilling last movements of perpetual motion, Mendelssohn’s String Quartets are works of considerable emotional range and mastery of form. This first disc of the complete String Quartets ranges from the youthful No. 1, Op. 12 (actually the second of the published quartets) to the great, tragic String Quartet No. 6, Op. 80, Mendelssohn’s last major work, composed after the death of his sister.
By Julian Haylock
By Giv Cornfield
The New Recordings, Cliffs Classics
By David Denton
Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809 –1847)
String Quartets • Vol. 1
Born in Hamburg in 1809, eldest son of the banker Abraham Mendelssohn and grandson of the great Jewish thinker Moses Mendelssohn, Felix Mendelssohn, who took the additional name Bartholdy on his baptism as a Christian, Heine’s ticket of admission to European culture, was brought up in Berlin, where his family settled in 1812. Here he enjoyed the wide cultural opportunities that his family offered, through their own interests and connections.
Mendelssohn’s early gifts, manifested in a number of directions, included marked musical precocity, both as a player and as a performer, at a remarkably early age. These exceptional abilities received every encouragement from his family and their friends, although Abraham Mendelssohn entertained early doubts about the desirability of his son taking the profession of musician. These reservations were in part put to rest by the advice of Cherubini in Paris and by the increasing signs of the boy’s musical abilities and interests.
Mendelssohn’s early manhood brought the opportunity to travel, as far south as Naples and as far north as The Hebrides, with Italy and Scotland both providing the inspiration for later symphonies. His career involved him in the Lower Rhine Festival in Düsseldorf and a period as city director of music, followed, in 1835, by appointment as conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig. Here he was able to continue the work he had started in Berlin six years earlier, when he had conducted in Berlin a revival of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Leipzig was to provide a degree of satisfaction that he could not find in Berlin, where he returned at the invitation of King Friedrich Wilhelm IV in 1841. In Leipzig once more, in 1843, he established a new Conservatory, spending his final years there, until his death at the age of 38 on 4th November 1847, six months after the death of his gifted and beloved sister Fanny.
In spite of his early precocity, which had brought a piano trio in 1820, piano quartets and sonatas, and, in 1825, the Octet, it was not until 1827 that Mendelssohn wrote a string quartet that satisfied him, later to be published as String Quartet No. 2. His first attempt at the form had been in 1823, a work that had remained unpublished. The quartet published in 1830 as No. 1 was the String Quartet in E flat major, Op. 12, which bears the date 14th September 1829. In that month Mendelssohn had returned to London, after travels that had taken him to Scotland, to the English Lake District and to Wales. His stay in London was prolonged by injury in a carriage accident, his recovery helped by the care of his friend Karl Klingemann, companion on his Scottish expedition. The quartet had been intended for his younger sister Rebecka’s friend Betty Pistor, who was soon to marry Adolf Rudorff. The younger members of the Pistor and Mendelssohn families, neighbours in Berlin, formed a lively circle, in spite of occasional differences. In a note to the violinist Ferdinand David, to whom Mendelssohn sent the quartet in 1830, he remarked that the change of dedication from ‘To B.P.’ to ‘To B.R.’, once the forthcoming marriage announcement had been made, should cause no difficulty.
The first movement of the quartet starts with a slow introduction that has been compared with the opening of Beethoven’s Quartet in E flat, Op. 74. This leads to the sonata-form Allegro non tardante, its second subject marked dolce, with the first subject subtly tinged with C minor on its return in recapitulation. The second movement is the well known G minor Canzonetta, which takes the place of a scherzo, contrasted here with a lively G major più mosso. The B flat major Andante espressivo, motivically related to the introduction to the first movement, leads without a break to the finale, with its opening G major chords, introducing a C minor sonata-form movement. The original key of E flat major is restored with the return of the coda of the first movement in what seems a natural and inevitable conclusion to the whole work.
The String Quartet No. 4 in E minor, Op. 44, No. 2, carries the date 18th June 1837, completed, therefore, before String Quartet No. 3, Op. 44, No. 1 and before the third of the set. In March Mendelssohn had married the eighteen-year-old Cécile Jeanrenaud, the second daughter of a deceased minister of the French Reformed Church. The Op. 44 quartets marked a return to the form after a gap of some years, and it can be no coincidence that the second of the group was in E minor, the key of the Violin Concerto of 1844. The sonata-form first movement presents its first theme, given urgency through the synopated accompaniment. The tranquil G major secondary theme is in distinct contrast. After the central development the main theme returns, with a varied accompaniment, and both themes have their place in the final coda. The second movement is a lively E major Scherzo, in which the viola offers brief moments of respite. The Andante, in G major, recalls Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words. The quartet ends with a vigorous finale, the urgency of its main theme tempered by the suaver secondary theme, but restored in a con fuoco coda.
The last of Mendelssohn’s quartets, the String Quartet No. 6 in F minor, Op. 80, was completed in September 1847. In May his much loved sister Fanny, wife of the painter Wilhelm Hensel and four years her brother’s senior, had died suddenly. Mendelssohn’s own health was deteriorating and the sixth quartet was among his last works, written during a vain attempt to find improvement to both health and spirits in Switzerland. Here he sought solace in painting, abandoned, when memories of his sister became too painful. It was in these circumstances that he wrote his last completed string quartet. The first movement is an intense expression of feeling, its marked principal thematic material only briefly contrasted with a second subject, while the coda finds a place for a further theme. The second movement, a fierce scherzo, is in the same key, with the dark-hued trio introduced by the viola and cello in the lower register, to be followed by the scherzo once more. The slow movement, in A flat major, still has an air of sadness, although in a major key, but affords relief from the bitter intensity of the preceding movements. The initial mood returns, however, in the finale, a deeply felt and tragic conclusion.
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