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CD Review

Felix Mendelssohn

Audite 21436

Complete Chamber Music For Strings

  • Quartet for Strings #1 in E Flat Major
  • Quartet for Strings #2 in A minor, Op. 13
  • Quartet for Strings #3 in D Major, Op. 44 #1
  • Quartet for Strings #4 in E minor, Op. 44 #2
  • Quartet for Strings #5 in E Flat Major, Op. 44 #3
  • Quartet for Strings #6 in F minor, Op. 80
  • Four Pieces for String Quartet, Op. 81
  • Octet for Strings in E Flat Major, Op. 20 *
  • Quintet for Strings #1 in A Major, Op. 18 **
  • Quintet for Strings #2 in B Flat Major, Op. 87 **
* Quartetto di Cremona
** Gunter Teuffel, viola
Mandelring Quartet
Audite AUD21436 4CDs
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One of the first things you'll notice about the excellent survey of Mendelssohn's string chamber music on this four-CD set from Audite is the sensitivity of the Mandelring Quartet. They never "shout". Even in the most extrovert and playful of movements (such as the springy molto allegro e vivace finale of the first Quartet [CD.1. tr.4]), intonation is rounded rather than hurried; every note and nuance is there. Nor is the texture and timbre robbed of depth by the music's momentum. They're very rich and satisfying.

The players know what's coming; one suspects that they know that we know too. Each turn, repetition, recapitulation will have its moment; there's no need to rush or anticipate. Yet to pace the unfolding of such exuberant and vivacious music as Mendelssohn's here requires a good degree of restraint. This the Mandelrings have in abundance. They possess a superb understanding of how Mendelssohn may have felt as he worked on each of these beautiful works; and possess it in equal measure to their enthusiasm not so much for the opportunity to play the music (that would be placing spectacle over substance) as for the music itself.

And it is indeed splendid music. It's less tenderly melancholic than Schubert's; less reflexive than Beethoven's. Mendelssohn's string chamber music is both direct, unambiguous and yet speculative. Listen to the way in which the Manderlings curve and slide their way around the canzonetta, allegretto of the E flat Major, Op. 12 [CD.1 tr. 2], for instance. It may remind you of the filigree of the "Midsummer Night's Dream" overture. Its very delicacy is its tensile strength. Such playing, which withholds bravado, takes courage and technique, confidence and (self-)awareness. These are among the great strengths of this set on Audite; they are all recordings made within the last few years and originally issued on four SACDs.

These accomplished players also display an amazing sense of togetherness. They play often as one – so that this balance between emphasis on the present passage and eagerness for what's about to be heard seems to increase our ability to focus on the variety on Mendelssohn's writing. As with Beethoven (and perhaps Schubert's slow movements), we're always delighted by the changes of theme, key, mood, direction. These four players, though, manage to mold such variety into their understanding of what constitutes the whole. The result: we are left with a sense of deep satisfaction; and wonder.

The Mandelring Quartet (Sebastian Schmidt, Nanette Schmidt, violins; Roland Glassl, viola (Andreas Willwohl replaced Glassl in 2015 but is not heard here); Bernhard Schmidt, cello) was formed in 1988 and is based in the German city of Neustadt an der Weinstrasse, which is the home town of three of the four players; "Mandelring", in fact, is the name of the street on which the Schmidt family lived. Many of the 20 or so recordings by the quartet have been of lesser-known repertory including by George Onslow and Berthold Goldschmidt.

Here, though, they turn their meticulous and expressive attention to the complete chamber music for strings by Mendelssohn. The Mandelrings are joined by the Quartetto di Cremona (Cristiano Gualco, Paolo Andreoli, violins; Simone Gramaglia, viola; Giovanni Scaglione, cello) in the Octet [CD.3 tr.s7-10], and by Gunter Teuffel as second violist in the two string quintets [CD.4 tr.s1-8]. This set deserves to be considered the reference collection for this repertoire: there is depth of feeling, technique, persuasive ensemble playing, mellowness of tone appropriate to the implicit claims for the depth and range of the string family made by Mendelssohn from his youthful E flat Major works without opus of 1823, through Opp 12 and 13, to the Op. 44 set (probably the most celebrated of Mendelssohn's string chamber works – except for the Octet).

Yet each of the works – including the less well-known Op. 8 and Vier Stücke, Op. 81 – has merits and strengths which this excellent playing brings out. Somehow they emphasize both variety and a cumulative sense that Mendelssohn was building, and ultimately came to revel in, the confidence of someone twice his age. Specifically, he was adept at knowing when a symphonic scale was appropriate to support the lyrical, the melodic and the almost burstingly tuneful; and when the intimate and tender worked better. Again the Manderlings are fully in accord with this distinction: their collective and individual dynamic and sense of tempo never once fail to communicate just what the composer must have been thinking.

One soon settles in to feeling in very safe hands with all of these interpretations and executions. The balance, for example, between the need which Mendelssohn felt to build on Beethoven's tonalities and life force on the one hand; and his determination to make his own way on the other does need a healthy measure of Middle European acknowledgement of the very essence of the earlier composer's richness. And here the Mandelrings offer just that. Mendelssohn's achievement is conveyed as all the greater when set against his inspirations, which included Mozart (particularly in the quintets) and Bach of course.

Yet a further balance is achieved: that between Mendelssohn's own special auras of melancholy, joy, effervescence and thoughtfulness. And the Mandelring Quartet admirably bridges such temperaments… for example the first movement of the A minor, Op. 13, where the adagio becomes allegro vivace [CD.1 tr.5], for instance. Above all, for all that the Manderlings obviously allow the music to infuse their senses completely, what they offer is an edifice, a set of musically and spiritually whole achievements. So then what we experience is an almost tangible monument to very substantial musical thinking from the early Romantic era. It's so solid and colorful that it becomes hard to imagine a world without it. Mendelssohn's string chamber music is made to seem… inevitable. Particularly when the four players are in such enviable unison: listen to the end of the Op. 12 fourth movement [CD.1 tr.4] – never a slip or a stumble; yet full of life. Analogously, the feeling with which one will come way after reaching the end of the fourth CD here is that the Mandelring Quartet's playing is so good because it is so disciplined, so… "tight".

The acoustic (the booklet just has "Klingenmünster", but perhaps that is Rhineland-Palatinate town's abbey) is compact, delicate almost in its balance between space and intimacy: just what's needed to enhance the stature of works which should be seen as not speculative but confident, authoritative, "expert" – yet without losing approachability. The booklet that comes with the four CDs is not lengthy, but does give brief descriptions of the music and players. Further documentation can be downloaded from the Audite website. There are other sets of the chamber music which will please in every respect; the Emersons on Deutsche Grammophon (4775370) come to mind. But for their perception, color and liveliness, technical acuity, penetration to the essence of this wonderful music and sense of the integrities of each movement, each work, the Mandelrings' accounts here can be as unequivocally and strongly recommended as any other.

Copyright © 2015, Mark Sealey