, March 2010
If you don’t have this SACD, ORDER IT IMMEDIATELY! It is the epitome of masterly compositions, vibrant playing and extraordinary sound. Mendelssohn wrote two string quintets (standard string quartet plus viola) separated by nearly 20 years. The first, in A, Op.18, (sequenced as the second work on the disc) was written when he was 17 years old but already reaching his prime as a composer. Influences from Mozart are apparent though Mendelssohn’s mature voice is evident throughout the work. The dynamic swells in the first movement are well executed by the players and the ensemble unanimity is a marvel to behold. The second movement (marked Inermezzo: Andante Sostenuto) contains some wistful tunes that flirt with a minor key; just a little bit of Sturm und Drang to balance the upbeat movements on either side of it. The scampering scherzo and playful allegro vivace finish out this wonderful quintet.
The second quintet in B-flat, Op.87 was written near the end of Mendelssohn’s brief life at his full maturity. It is at times joyful and dramatic (first movement Allegro Vivace) and somber and intense (the probing Adagio e Lento third movement). The performance is sublime. I don’t have any other recordings from the Mendelssohn String Quartet. On the evidence of this excellent recording, I wonder why? Whatever the case may be, this recording is a must-have.
The quartet is joined in these performances (on second viola) by the renowned violinist Robert Mann, the long-time (51 years!) principal violinist of the Julliard String Quartet. Mann was in his 80th year when these were recorded and his playing is remarkable (most evident in the first quintet’s first movement where there is some exposed writing for the second viola). Amazing!
The recorded sound is truly outstanding. This is one of BIS’s (rare) DSD masters (says so right in the booklet) and indeed it sounds like it. DSD does very good things with violin upper harmonics and it is clearly evident here. The sound of the violins above the stave is perfect - it has the natural “bite” without sounding in any way harsh or strident. Very natural, very beautiful and NO listener fatigue (a frequent problem with 16/44 pcm). The recording venue was a Swedish church and balance engineer Hans Kipfer has gotten the blend of direct and church acoustic down perfectly. The hall resonance never obscures any of the ensemble details in the rather close-up perspective. As an added bonus, no sniffing and huffing is audible from the players. Praga could take a lesson in chamber music recording from this one. Bravo, BIS, Bravo! Highly Recommended. A rather rare 5/5 recording for me.