MENDELSSOHN: Complete Chamber Music for Strings, Vol. III = String Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 44 No. 3; Four Pieces for String Quartet, Op. 81; Octet in E-flat Major, Op. 20 – Mandelring Quartet / Quartetto di Cremona – Audite multichannel SACD 92.658, 74:00 [Distr. by Naxos] (11/19/13) ****:

If Mendelssohn hadn’t died at a young age, it would make sense to speak of the works on this program as coming from his early, middle, and late creative periods. Then again, since he began composing repertory pieces while still a preteen (most notably the String Symphonies), it would make sense to speak in terms of creative periods except, as critics have noted, Mendelssohn came to his musical idiom early and his style underwent no radical changes thereafter. So it’s both a wonder and a potential black mark against Mendelssohn that he was able to craft incidental music for a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and use, without the least feeling of disjunction, the overture to the play that he wrote sixteen years earlier, at age seventeen.

I say a “potential black mark” because that judgment depends on the value you place on Mendelssohn’s music. I recall a radio interview with Christopher Hogwood in which the conductor said he valued Mendelssohn very highly, feeling that his lack of growth as a musician could be chalked up to his having successfully solved most of the problems facing a composer. In the nineteenth century, of course, the classical perfection of Mendelssohn’s music made him critical fodder for the Berlioz-Liszt-Wagner creative axis. Again, that surface perfection is lodged against Mendelssohn by critics even now, a sign that craftsmanship was more important to him than deep emotional expressivity.

While I’m a longtime admirer of Mendelssohn, I understand and somewhat share the misgivings of critics for whom the composer failed to fully live up to the spectacular promise of his early masterworks. The three “middle quartets” of Op. 44 (1837–38) are thought by some to be a step backward from the compositional boldness of the First Quartet, Op. 12 (actually, second in order of composition). If that’s true, then Op. 44, No. 3, is probably the most backward-looking of the three quartets making up that opus. I’ve always thought there’s something close to the coziness of Hausmuik about this piece, especially true of the jaunty last movement.

Clearly, the Mandelring Quartet doesn’t see things this way and succeed in making me take this music more seriously than I have beforehand. The notes to this recording mention the emphasis that Mendelssohn places on the first violin, in deference to Ferdinand David, Mendelssohn’s concertmaster at the Leipzig Gewandhaus; he would also premiere the composer’s Violin Concerto. The notes make a further claim that the main theme of the first movement and some of its figuration are “in general closer to Beethoven’s idiom than the openings of the other two Quartets Op. 44.” The Mandelring proceeds to play the music with an intensity that refutes the idea this is retreat from the Beethovenian daring of the First Quartet. No fairy grace in the second movement scherzo; in the hands of the Mandelring, it is obsessive in its forward momentum. And that jaunty finale is a blazing juggernaut as well—good natured, for sure, but there’s real brio as well. This is 180 degrees from the comfortable way in which, for example, Quatuor Ysaÿe (on Decca) plays the piece. Frankly, I’ll take the Mandelrings any day; they’ve given me a whole new perspective on this piece.

The Mandelrings, joined by Quartetto di Cremona, bring the same level of intensity to the remarkable Octet, another product of Mendelssohn’s teens. The work can certainly handle it, and the playing is brilliant. Recorded competition is huge in this piece though the program offered on the current disc is, I’m pretty sure, matched nowhere else. Actually, in this music I prefer a little more warmth, a little more rhythmic give especially in the finale, virtues I find in one of my favorite performances, that by Hausmusik (Virgin Veritas). But the Mandelring’s approach is certainly a valid one and sits well alongside their like-minded interpretation of Op. 44, No. 3.

The inclusion of the two movements for string quartet Op. 81, written in Mendelssohn’s last year, makes this an especially generous program. Again, the Mandelrings play the music for just about all it’s worth, ratcheting up the excitement in the minor-key variation at the heart of the slow movement, capturing the elfin capriciousness of the scherzo, written in style not very different from that of the scherzo of the Octet of twenty-two years earlier. And here I return to the points I made at the beginning of this review. To conclude, in performances like these from the Mandelring Quartet, the issue of Mendelssohn’s lack of development seems beside the point. Advocacy like the Mandelrings give this music shows just how much emotional fervor as well as craft there is in Mendelssohn’s art, early and late.

Audite’s recording matches the performances to a T, which is mostly a good thing, though I would have appreciated a little more distance between the performers and me. Close-up as the recording is, that aforementioned emphasis on the first violin gets to be a little wearing after a while, and I think some perspective would have given the sound more bloom and greater spaciousness in the best surround-sound manner. But this is a small matter given the power and beauty of the performances, which I fervently recommend.

—Lee Passarella