This is yet another superb disc from Quatuor Ebène. Their disc of Debussy, Fauré and Ravel won Gramophone's Recording of the Year award, and I think this is in the same league.
There is a perception in some quarters that Felix Mendelssohn was a bit lightweight and not a great composer. I think these works and performances show that to be wholly untrue. There is genuine depth and musical brilliance here both in the youthful A minor quartet and the intense, more mature F minor. I hadn't heard Fanny Mendelssohn's quartet before (to my shame) and it is also very, very good - full of genuine skill and inventiveness, and a very engaging work to listen to.
What makes this disc shine is the performance of Quatuor Ebène. We are blessed to have a lot of very fine string quartets performing at the moment, and Quatuor Ebène are among the very best. Their technique and intonation are rock-solid and they have formed themselves into a wonderfully empathetic chamber unit. As an example, take the Allegro di molto section of the 3rd movement of the A minor quartet. There is a lot of very quick, super-fine work on the first violin which is made to sound easy, but also, unflashily in the background, wonderfully nimble, sensitive cello playing. The whole thing hangs together and blends beautifully, and makes perfect emotional sense among the virtuosic playing. And then the finale begins with Death-And-The-Maiden-like intensity and we are off in another completely different but equally involving direction. It is quite wonderful playing, all put to the service of the music rather than the glory of the musicians. The rest of the disc is just as good.
I cannot recommend this too highly. It is excellent music, beautifully played and very well recorded. A real gem.
on 22 January 2013
There's a rather mawkish illustration inside the sleeve of the Quatuor Ebène's new disc of Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn's string quartets. It is taken from a painting by the Viennese artist Robert Poetzelberger. Fanny is leaning on Felix's shoulder, whose posture is frankly abysmal for playing the piano. Fundamentally, its queasy hand-me-down Romanticism is entirely wrong for the disc, which is both urgent and fresh and shows once more that these players are superb contenders within contemporary chamber music performance.
That said, the Quatuor Ebène never stints on the warmth you would expect for this repertoire, yet both of Mendelssohn's represented quartets are dark works and require significant interpretative strength. The players bed into the strings and the whole of the A minor quartet sounds as if haunted. They're not afraid of a landing on an open string and that ghostly sound appears time and again in the Intermezzo, a sort of absent presence within the midst of the work. Such details, always accompanied by vivid dynamic contrasts, put you in the world of the Schubert of 'Death and the Maiden' than the domestic recline you might expect of Mendelssohn.
The contrapuntal introduction to Fanny's E flat major quartet is no less intense and, while the players never disturb the gentle throb of metre, they emphasise the first movement's string of suspensions to great emotional ends. Despite the nominal tonality of the work, the quartet clings melancholically to the relative minor, which is only released back into E flat major in the final Allegro. Here too, however, the Ebène players maintain their potency, which shows the music in a rich and rewarding light.
Mendelssohn's tacit requiem for Fanny - the F minor quartet was written after her death - bookends the disc. Again, the intemperate Schubert is never far away. Here, the absence of vibrato at the beginning of a chord, slowly but very surely warming before moving on underlines that sense of emptiness and loss. Finally, the last movement has surprising brute force, though never coarsens. Emotionally engaging, ravishingly performed, this proves a superb account of works by two siblings often relegated to the picturesque.