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.