Champs Hill Records are proud to present a new four disc survey of the complete quartet music of Felix & Fanny Mendelssohn, performed by young, up-and-coming string quartets in some very fine, if not entirely familiar, chamber music. It is music which challenges any prejudice against Felix as an 'emotionally safe' composer or of Fanny as simply following in her brother's footsteps.
This ambitious project fulfills two of the key aims of the label, to release less-recorded repertoire and to help young musicians. Each quartet is performed by a different young ensemble, the release featuring the: Benyounes, Idomeneo, Sacconi, Navarra, Castalian, Piatti, Badke, Artea, Wu, and Cavaleri String Quartets.
Aiming to be a comprehensive survey, it includes the posthumously published String Quartet in E flat he wrote aged 14, and the 12 Fugues for String Quartet written when he was 12. His Four Pieces for String Quartet, which were never intended as a collection, include the middle two movements of the quartet he left unfinished on his death in 1847. The set also includes Fanny Mendelssohn's String Quartet and a bonus track of the song Frage (Ist es Wahr?), the inspiration for Felix Mendelssohn's Quartet No.2, sung here by Sophie Bevan accompanied by Julian Milford.
This important chamber music repertoire, which was admired in the 19th century for the assured writing, structure and fine aristocratic style, is here revitalized for a whole generation of performers and listeners alike. Champs Hill Records is very grateful for the enthusiasm with which the string quartets have embraced the project.
It is often said that if Mozart and Mendelssohn had both died at the age of 20, Mendelssohn would have been accounted by far the greater composer ' for though both of them were prodigies who wrote copious music from an early age, Mendelssohn's early works surpass Mozart's in both substance and originality. It was only later that Mozart's genius came to full fruition, while in the view of many critics Mendelssohn never surpassed his teenaged achievements in works like the String Octet or the incidental music to A Midsummer Night's Dream. From his earliest years he seemed to have a natural affinity for string instruments, as is well illustrated by the twelve-and-a-bit Sinfonias for string orchestra he wrote between the ages of 12 and 14 (student works half-way between Baroque symphonies and string quartets writ large) and the aforementioned String Octet, written at age 16, essentially conceived as a symphony-like double string quartet.
Mendelssohn's compositions for string quartet proper are probably less familiar these days than they were in the 19th century, when they were influential models, almost universally admired for their deft handling of structure, their amazingly assured writing for strings, and their fine, aristocratic style. These are qualities that can never really go out of fashion, but they deserve to be discovered afresh by each new generation of listeners.
In 1821, aged 12, Mendelssohn penned a set of 12 Fugues for String Quartet, more as contrapuntal studies than serious attempts at the genre. In one sense the String Quartet in E flat, Op. posth. that he wrote two years later was also a 'student exercise', but ' though it remained unpublished in his lifetime and was only printed in 1879 ' it is very much more than a slavish application of a compositional formula learned by rote. It may not be a work of great profundity, and even for its time it is stylistically conservative, but it has charm, nicely proportioned forms and, above all, a native mastery of the quartet medium that had not been seen since the young Mozart. The undue prominence accorded to the first violin is more reminiscent of Haydn, or perhaps the quartet style then being cultivated in France; but there is no doubt about the sheer effectiveness of Mendelssohn's quartet writing.
The Allegro moderato first movement is a very regular sonata form with two conventionally patterned themes that are led through the usual processes of exposition, development and recapitulation. Mendelssohn indulges in no harmonic adventures or distant modulations, but the music has abundant confidence and vitality. The ensuing slow movement ' this is the only Mendelssohn quartet in which the slow movement comes second and the scherzo third, in the four-movement scheme ' is marked Adagio non troppo and is appropriately lyrical and expressive, with some discreet chromaticism. Mendelssohn follows this with a Minuet in practically 18th-century style, but vivacious and certainly imbued with the spirit of the dance. For finale, he shows off his contrapuntal learning by writing a double fugue, perhaps inspired by the fugal movements of some of Haydn's early quartets. A busy, bustling movement, this can sound hectic if pressed too hard, but at the right tempo is a very enjoyable experience for a group of four players, each of whom is given an equal voice in the discourse.
Following this youthful (but not juvenile) work, Mendelssohn's principal bouts of quartet composition spanned a period of 20 years, 1827'47, in three brief episodes about ten years apart. They began with the first quartet that he acknowledged ' String Quartet in A minor, Op.13 ' generally called Quartet No. 2 even though it was written two years earlier than his (second) E flat Quartet, which was published slightly before it as Op.12. Composed in 1827 before he turned 18, this remarkable A minor Quartet was first heard at a concert in the Mendelssohn home in Berlin and published three years later.
Written in the year of Beethoven's death, it shows that Mendelssohn knew and admired Beethoven's late string quartets (and also his piano sonatas), and yet ' unlike most of his contemporaries, or indeed the next few generations ' he was not so reverent as to subordinate his own ideas to this elder genius. The brilliant A minor Quartet innovates in the formal sphere, with a chain of references between the various movements. The entire design is begun and rounded off by a slow introduction in A major which puts everything else, so to speak, in quotation-marks and also returns within the body of the quartet. It establishes a kind of Leitmotif: a three-chord figure from one of Mendelssohn's early love- songs: Frage (Question), written in June 1827 and probably inspired by a youthful passion for the singer Betty Pistor, who would become the secret dedicatee of his next quartet, Op.12. Mendelssohn himself probably wrote the words, and the figure was originally set to the words 'Ist es wahr?' (Is it true?). This seems in one sense a remarkable reminiscence of the 'Muss es sein?' motto of the finale of Beethoven's F major Quartet, Op.135, composed only a few months before Mendelssohn's quartet but not performed until 1828. Mendelssohn's interest in such 'cyclic' devices may have been sparked by his boyhood teacher Ludwig Berger, who used them in his own music. The song-figure occurs three times at the end of the introduction, and its characteristic dotted rhythm is carried over into the main theme of the ensuing Allegro vivace, which confirms A minor for Mendelssohn as a rather hectic, anxious key. The expression of this movement is hard- pressed and forceful, almost throughout.
The slow movement, in F major, begins as a Romantic Adagio, which also refers back to the slow introduction of the entire quartet. It develops, however, as a moderately paced fugue, probably modelled on the fugue in the slow movement of Beethoven's F minor quartet, Op.95. This is deliberate and searching in nature, of great polyphonic skill and a sinewy, wide-spaced texture. There follows, not a scherzo (a form for which Mendelssohn was already famous) but an Intermezzo in the character of a minuet-like serenade, the first violin's song-like theme (reminiscent of the 'Ist es wahr?' motif) spun over a pizzicato accompaniment. A scurrying trio is referred to again in the movement's furtive coda.
The finale seems to be closely modelled on that of Beethoven's A minor Quartet, Op.132. It begins in tragic vein, with a passionate violin recitative over string tremolandi, before the loping and troubled motion of the movement proper begins. Both forceful and full of pathos, this too has a fugal passage for development (based on an inversion of the second movement's fugue theme) and works up to a return of the opening violin recitative. It builds to what seems a decisive climax, but is cut short; whereupon a further plangent, fantasia-like solo from the first violin introduces a reminiscence of the fugue theme from the second movement. This in its turn leads into a reprise of the entire first-movement introduction, which is further developed so that the quartet ends in A major and its four movements are, so to speak, 'book-ended' between two occurrences of the same music.
Despite its lower opus number, the String Quartet in E flat major, Op.12 was composed two years later, in 1829: the opus numbers here merely reflect the order of publication, which occurred before the end of the year. Mendelssohn began it in Berlin but completed it in London on 14 September, during the first of what would prove to be many visits to Britain. During his journey to Scotland he continued it at Coed Du, the estate of the Taylor family, business acquaintances of Mendelssohn's father. It was altogether an extremely creative period: on 10 September Mendelssohn wrote to his sisters Fanny and Rebecca, 'My quartet is now in the middle of the last movement, and I think it will be completed in a few days', before going on to detail his plans for his Reformation and Scotch symphonies, and the Hebrides Overture. He dedicated the quartet to Betty Pistor, a Berlin neighbour, whose father was the inventor and constructor of astronomical instruments, Carl Philipp Heinrich Pistor.
In general, this is a more lyrical work than the A minor Quartet, and in a more orthodox four-movement form; yet the influence of Beethoven is still palpable, and as in the previous quartet Mendelssohn employs the cyclic recurrence of themes, perhaps in an even more striking way. The first movement's slow introduction, Adagio non troppo, recalls that of Beethoven's Quartet in E flat, Op.74 (the Harp Quartet), but the ensuing Allegro non tardante is more typical of Mendelssohn himself, adapting song-like material to a sonata-form design. Perhaps influenced by the example of Beethoven's first Rasumovsky Quartet, Mendelssohn dispenses with a repeat of the exposition, but starts the development with a repeat of the opening theme in the tonic E flat, as if he were actually beginning an exposition repeat. He also incorporates a new theme into the development, which later appears in the coda. At the outset of the recapitulation, Mendelssohn underscores the first theme with a strong E flat in the cello: paradoxically, however, this firm presentation of the main theme enters pianissimo and is not introduced by a cadence from the dominant, making it almost an anticlimax rather than the dramatic event that sonata recapitulations are conventionally expected to provide.
The second movement is not a scherzo but a canzonetta in G minor, an amiable movement whose main theme would be virtually reproduced by Schumann a few years later in his Spring Symphony. An Andante espressivo in B flat (relative major of G minor, and dominant of E flat) proves to be a brief movement, with two aggressive, recitative-like passages marked con fuoco, that leads without a break into the lively finale, much of which is in G minor. Here the new theme that appeared in the development section of the first movement reappears, first in the middle of the finale and finally the coda, which remarkably contains a near-complete reprise of the coda of the first movement, with that movement's first subject also putting in a last appearance. Ending the first and last movements of a multi-movement work with the same music was not entirely a new idea for Mendelssohn, for he had used the same technique in his Piano Sonata in E major, Op.6, of 1826.
The three string quartets that comprise Mendelssohn's Op.44 were composed in 1837-38. He began them shortly after his marriage to Cecile Jeanrenaud, while the couple were on their honeymoon in Freiburg. As he wrote to his sister Fanny, 'I have almost finished a string quartet, and shall soon begin another. I am in the right vein for working just now ...'. When completed, and after revising all three quartets for publication in 1839, he dedicated the opus to the Crown Prince of Sweden. In issuing these mature quartets as a group of three, Mendelssohn probably had in mind the precedent of Beethoven's three 'Rasumovsky' quartets; and his trilogy in turn would become a model for Schumann's three quartets Op.41 of 1842. All three works are cast in four movements, with the scherzo falling second and the slow movement third; and unlike Opp. 12 and 13, none of them is prefaced with a slow introduction, each starting off in medias res.
The String Quartet No.3 in D major, Op.44 No.1 was in fact the last of the group to be completed, on 24 July 1838, and was first performed in February 1839. It seems to have been the composer's favourite of the three, and he wrote to his friend the violinist-composer Ferdinand David (who led that performance) that he believed audiences would cherish it because of its 'unusual passion'. In fact the Molto allegro vivace first movement opens with a soaring first violin melody, accompanied by quietly simmering second violin and viola and a rhythmically impulsive cello, that is entirely full-blooded in orientation. The second theme, however, is more subdued: it appears in the darker region of F sharp minor and possesses a grave chorale-like character. Out of the contrast between these two very different ideas Mendelssohn weaves an often thrilling movement.
The second movement flirts with archaism, being a 'Menuetto' rather than a scherzo as such. Marked Un poco allegretto, this is civilized, genteel music; (some twirling first violin eighth notes, taken up almost half-heartedly by the other instruments, however, save the music from collapsing from the weight of too many good manners). The ensuing Andante espressivo ma con moto in B minor has a beautifully transparent texture, conjured out of pizzicati from the viola and cello, with a continuous light staccato in semiquavers from the second violin, and an elegant first violin melody that now and then joins the second violin in weaving its staccato patterns. The Presto con brio finale has something of the character of a Baroque gigue, and the bravura that Mendelssohn requires of the first violin here suggests he was already thinking of the Violin Concerto he would write for Ferdinand David in 1844.
Even before the premiere of the D major Quartet, on 28 October 1937, Ferdinand David and his quartet had given the first performance of String Quartet No.4 in E minor, Op.44 No.2. This was actually the first member of the Op.44 trilogy to be completed, and it is possibly the most admired of all Mendelssohn's quartets. In strong contrast to the D major work, this music is tense and sometimes feverish in character. At the outset of the first movement, Allegro assai appassionato, the urgent syncopations of the accompaniment and the wide arpeggiated arch of the principal theme are unmistakably Mendelssohnian inspirations and apparently irreconcilable forces until unanimity is achieved with lively music that retreats to a pianissimo dynamic before introducing the warmly lyrical second subject in G major. The movement unfolds as a perfect piece of sonata architecture infused by Mendelssohn's characteristic mastery of motion. The way in which he seamlessly fuses the end of the development with the beginning of the recapitulation is breathtaking.
The second movement ' an Allegro di molto in E major ' this time is a true scherzo of the light, scintillating gossamer type that Mendelssohn most favoured, propelled throughout by a four-semiquaver figure that assumes great importance as the movement proceeds. It is followed by an exquisite G major Andante seemingly modelled on the composer's popular Songs without Words, led off by the first violin but with the melody later given to the cello. Mendelssohn was apparently aware of the risk of sentimentality invading the interpretation of this movement, for he prefaces it with the stern injunction that 'the movement must by no means be played draggingly'. The finale, a headlong, highly athletic Presto agitato, is a movement of scintillating virtuosity that sometimes seems like an intensification of the scherzo's music in more abandoned terms, driving the Quartet to a triumphant and decisive resolution.
String Quartet No.5 in E flat Major, Op.44 No.3 ' Mendelssohn's third quartet in that key ' was composed in the winter of 1837'38 and completed on 6 February of the latter year; the honour of the first performance again fell to Ferdinand David and his quartet, on 3 April. Of the three Op.44 quartets, this one is perhaps the richest in texture. In the Allegro vivace first movement the players almost immediately engage in conversation over the initial four-note motif, passing it from instrument to instrument in imitation or in sequence as the music unfolds. This first idea is contrasted against sturdy dotted-rhythm figures to create a movement of dynamic action, sometimes almost tumultuous in its bravura activity.
Even by Mendelssohn's standards the Assai leggiero vivace scherzo, in G minor, is a notably fleet-footed example of its genre. Its continual 6/8 quaver motion is shared between the four instruments for most of its length, only accumulating to a resonant climax at the end. The Adagio non troppo slow movement, in A flat, shows Mendelssohn's power of evoking discreet pathos though the chromatic inflections that prepare each appearance of the song-like main melody. By contrast, the finale, which he marks Molto allegro con fuoco, lives up to that rather over-the-top indication in music of irresistible dash and verve.
On 12 May 1847 Mendelssohn, whose health was already delicate, collapsed in shock, unconscious, at hearing of the death of his sister Fanny. He never entirely recovered, and confessed that he 'could not think of work, or even music, without feeling the most intense emptiness and barrenness in the mind and heart'. The following month he travelled to Interlaken in Switzerland. Here he seemed to rally and, by the time of his return to Leipzig in July, he had composed some portions of both an oratorio and an opera, plus an entire string quartet and two movements of another. The complete work, String Quartet No.6 in F minor, Op.80, was the first he had written in nine years and incomparably the most important of these productions. It was destined to be the last work he finished; in September he suffered another collapse and wrote nothing more before his death on 4 November. The quartet was not published until three years later. Despite being the last completed utterance of someone who was by any standard a major quartet composer, it has remained sadly neglected.
This dark-hued, emotionally stressed work is generally accepted to be Mendelssohn's response to the loss of his beloved sister. Though still mediated by his sure sense of post- classical form, the burden of subjective emotion in this quartet is unprecedented in his music. In many ways its sense of tragedy and sustained anguish are the antithesis of what we imagine (and Mendelssohn's contemporaries imagined) to be his characteristic tone and genius. Commentators often remark that it is clearly influenced by Beethoven's String Quartet Op.95, also in F minor, and that it fails to approach the same standard. The influence is highly probable, but Mendelssohn was not attempting to emulate Beethoven, rather to find his own way to create a convincingly tragic quartet ' one of more personal immediacy ' in that dark, disturbing key, which seems to have obsessed him with its capacity for urgency and affright. Three of the four movements are in F minor; the exception is the Adagio in A flat, F minor's relative major. The result is a work perhaps more in the tradition of Schubert's Death and the Maiden and Brahms's C minor Quartet of Op.51.
The first movement is a compact sonata-form that sets in furiously with sinister tremolandi and sforzati and seldom relaxes its pace. The first subject is driven and harried, the second slightly more relaxed and lyrical, but only slightly, and it is continually drawn into the feverish activity. The writing throughout the quartet is very taxing; even Mendelssohn's use of the instruments' range often seems to embody distress, the first violin crying high and inconsolably above the fierce rhythms of the other three. Rather than finding any comforting resolution, in the coda the tempo quickens to Presto and the movement ends in a wild, heart-broken burst of virtuoso playing.
The second movement is perhaps the most original of the four, and again the antithesis of the lightly tripping 'fairy' scherzos for which Mendelssohn was famous. The music seems bound on a wheel or treadmill, the scherzo theme coming round with a kind of dread circularity. Even the quieter trio, with its wary, pensive tread, brings no relief. The scherzo returns; it seems like the Trio is also going to return, but after a few bars it gutters out into silence. The ensuing Adagio is another quartet slow movement that is sometimes likened to a 'Song Without Words', and indeed the main melody is very vocal in character, but despite the major key there is no real lightening of the emotional burden: the music's intense lyricism suggests a measure of calm but is infused with pain. The finale returns us to F minor, and the grip of obsessive, hurrying rhythms and sudden outbursts of fury. It has a second subject of almost Schubertian melodic pathos, which never really finds time to expand before the forceful rhythms of the principal subject return. The first violin writing rises to an almost concerto-like virtuosity in the coda, which hurries the quartet to its end in a mood of grim resolution.
The other two quartet movements that Mendelssohn had composed at Interlaken languished until 1850, when they were published along with two much earlier movements as Four Pieces for String Quartet, Op.81. Clearly Mendelssohn had not planned these four items as a collection, and they manifest no overall unity; on the other hand they are nicely contrasted, while confirming his superb command of the string-quartet medium. In the published order (which is not always the order in which quartets choose to perform them) they begin with the two pieces apparently intended as the middle two movements of the unfinished quartet of 1847. These are passionate, emotionally complex utterances. Piece 1 is cast as an Andante in E major which opens in a reflective, self-questioning mood with the principal theme on solo viola; there are five variations, encompassing a scherzando quickening of pace and a dramatic turn to E minor before the enigmatic ending. Piece 2, a Scherzo in A minor, begins in rather subdued style but soon turns brilliant and virtuosic. Though certainly not conceived as a finale, it makes a suitably scintillating conclusion to this set of disparate pieces. It is also the very last example of that delightful musical phenomenon, the 'Mendelssohn scherzo', of which the most famous example is the scherzo from his music to A Midsummer Night's Dream.
The group of pieces continues with a Fugue in E flat major, composed when Mendelssohn was 18. Even then he was at the height of his powers, and in its calm, even flow it demonstrates his contrapuntal mastery and his natural aptitude as a quartet composer. The last piece is a Capriccio in E minor from 1843 which exemplifies Mendelssohn's gift for balance among the voices and instrumental colouring that adds lustre and memorability even to fleeting musical ideas. It consists of an Andante introduction followed by another fugue, based on a four-note motif derived from the introduction's principal theme.
Mendelssohn intended the F minor Quartet as a kind of instrumental requiem for his elder sister Fanny. Though she published little in her lifetime, Fanny was herself a prolific and without any doubt a highly gifted composer. Her String Quartet in E flat, her only venture in the genre, dates from 1834 and was written for private performance at her Berlin salon. Private rather than public performance allowed her to experiment with form in a way that Felix perhaps never could. From its intense, throbbing introduction to the fantasia-like first movement, this is clearly a work of serious import, and indeed despite the nominal tonality it clings to the minor mode until the comparatively carefree finale.