About this Recording
8.570002 - MENDELSSOHN, Felix: String Quartets, Vol. 2 (New Zealand String Quartet) - String Quartets Nos. 2, 5 / Capriccio / Fugue
English  German 

Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809–1847)
String Quartets • 2


Born in Hamburg in 1809, eldest son of the banker Abraham Mendelssohn and grandson of the great Jewish thinker Moses Mendelssohn, Felix Mendelssohn, who took the additional name Bartholdy on his baptism as a Christian, Heine’s ticket of admission to European culture, was brought up in Berlin, where his family settled in 1812. Here he enjoyed the wide cultural opportunities that his family offered, through their own interests and connections.

Mendelssohn’s early gifts, manifested in a number of directions, included marked musical precocity, both as a player and as a performer, at a remarkably early age. These exceptional abilities received every encouragement from his family and their friends, although Abraham Mendelssohn entertained early doubts about the desirability of his son taking the profession of musician. These reservations were in part put to rest by the advice of Cherubini in Paris and by the increasing signs of the boy’s musical abilities and interests.

Early manhood brought Mendelssohn the opportunity to travel, as far south as Naples and as far north as The Hebrides, with Italy and Scotland both providing the inspiration for later symphonies. His career involved him in the Lower Rhine Festival in Düsseldorf and a period as city director of music, followed, in 1835, by appointment as conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig. Here he was able to continue the work he had started in Berlin six years earlier, when he had conducted in Berlin a revival of Bach’s St Matthew Passion. Leipzig was to provide a degree of satisfaction that he could not find in Berlin, where he returned at the invitation of King Friedrich Wilhelm IV in 1841. In Leipzig once more, in 1843, he established a new Conservatory, spending his final years there, until his death at the age of 38 on 4 November 1847, six months after the death of his gifted and beloved sister Fanny.

In spite of his early precocity, which had brought a piano trio in 1820, piano quartets and sonatas, and, in 1825, the Octet, it was not until 1827 that Mendelssohn wrote a string quartet that satisfied him, later to be published as String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 13.His first attempt at the form had been in 1823, a work that had remained unpublished, while his last completed quartet was written in 1847. Before his death he had started a second quartet, of which two movements, an Andante in E major and a Scherzo in A minor were published posthumously. The Capriccio in E minor, Op. 81, No. 3 and Fugue in E flat major, Op 81, No. 4 were also published posthumously under the same opus number. The first of these two works dates from 1843. It opens with an Andante con moto in 12/8, followed by an Allegro fugato, assai vivace, its contrapuntal subject stated by the second violin, followed by the viola and the cello and, finally, the first violin. The Fugue, marked A tempo ordinario, was written in 1827, the year of the String Quartet in A minor, Op. 13. The viola is entrusted with the first statement of the fugal subject, answered by the second violin, followed by the first violin and the cello. The viola then proposes a faster moving subject, duly answered as before. The two subjects are combined and other contrapuntal devices are employed before the movement comes to an end.

In 1830 Mendelssohn played his String Quartet in A minor, Op. 13, to Heinrich Marschner, who arranged for its publication with Breitkopf and Härtel, while the String Quartet in E flat major, Op. 12, was sold to Hofmeister. The latter showed signs of the influence of Beethoven’s later quartets, and the same is true of Op. 13, with its opening question, Ist es wahr? (Is it true?), as a recurrent motif, a motto taken from his setting of the poem Frage by Johann Heinrich Voss and recalling Beethoven’s Muss es sein? (Must it be?) from Der schwer gefasste Entschluss of the latter’s Quartet in F major, Op. 135, his last complete work, dating from October 1826, as well as the motif that starts the Andante espressivo, Die Abwesenheit (The Absence) in Beethoven’s sonata Les Adieux. Mendelssohn, in fact, continues here the path suggested in Beethoven’s later quartets. At the head of the autograph of the A minor Quartet he quotes his song, and the movements that follow all contain references to it, in one way or another. The quartet starts with a slow introduction, leading to a taut Allegro vivace that suggests Mendelssohn’s familiarity with Beethoven’s Quartet in A minor, Op. 132, its first theme presented contrapuntally with a turbulent development at its heart. The F major slow movement opens with a derivative of the motto theme, the source also of the fugal theme that follows. A first violin recitative leads back to the return of the main theme. The A minor Allegretto con moto again has a theme derived from the motto, offered initially by the first violin, accompanied by pizzicato chords. To this a rapid A major Allegro di molto trio section provides a contrast. The theme returns and there is a coda that includes references to the trio. The last movement opens rhetorically, a recurrent feature, and there is fugal writing before the first violin recitative leads to the return of the Adagio with which the quartet had opened and a quotation of the ending of the motto song, Was ich fühle, das begreift nur, die es mitfühlt, und die treu mir ewig bleibt (What I feel is only understood by her who feels it with me and who remains always true to me), the answer to the original question.

Mendelssohn wrote the three string quartets that make up Op. 44 in 1837–38, ten years after his first published attempts at the form. The String Quartet in E flat major, Op. 44, No. 3, was in fact the second of the three quartets to be completed, dated 6 February 1838 and first heard in Leipzig in April that year. The parts of all three were published by Breitkopf and Härtel in 1839, after considerable revision, and Mendelssohn made further changes before the publication of the works in score in the following year. The direct influence of Beethoven is now less immediately apparent and Mendelssohn has by now developed his own mastery of classical form, although some have detected a rhythmic debt to Beethoven’s third Razumovsky Quartet in the first movement. The opening theme, which provides motivic elements for later development, marks a distinct contrast with the second subject. The C minor Scherzo is sombre and even sinister in mood and contains interesting fugal elements. This is followed by an A flat major slow movement of characteristically limpid clarity. The air of tranquillity is broken by the energy and ebullience of the final Molto allegro con fuoco, ending the work with music of variety and of considerable brilliance and virtuosity.

Keith Anderson

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