Classical Music Home

Welcome to Naxos Records

Keyword Search
 Classical Music Home > Naxos Album Reviews

Album Reviews

See latest reviews of other albums...

Jerry Dubins
Fanfare, March 2010

Happily, the New Zealand Quartet does not attempt to present the four movements of Op. 81 as a bonafide string quartet, presenting only two of its movements as fillers for the two authentic quartets on the disc. Vol 1 contained Quartets Nos 1, 4, and 6, so this leaves the remaining two movements of Op. 81, plus the Quartet No 3 in D-Major, Op. 44/1, and possibly some of the above-cited miscellany still to be recorded on a third volume.

In a very competitive field, which includes the first-choice Emerson and Pacifica Quartets, and as alternate picks, the Leipzig Gewandhaus, Talich, and Leipzig Quartets, the New Zealand Quartet more than holds its own. First violinist Helene Pohl’s sweet tone ingratiates without turning saccharine or cloying; and the ensemble’s intonation, complementary phrasing, and tonal balance are noteworthy. I was particularly taken with the NZQ’s interpretation of the Intermezzo movement in the A-Minor Quartet No 2. They bring out the lazy lilting and drone effects of the Allegretto section in a way that is simultaneously amusing and touching. It evoked an image for me of a lame troll dragging its foot, a slightly comical yet sad figure you can’t help laughing at and feeling sorry for at the same time.

Whether you’re on a budget or not, if you’re in the market for some exceptionally fine Mendelssohn string quartet playing, this Naxos disc is a winner. Strongly recommended.

Bob Briggs
MusicWeb International, February 2010

This CD is excellent: the music, the playing, the recorded sound. Indeed, it is everything you could want in a CD of gorgeous chamber music, and chamber music of the first rank.

To start with the Capriccio—the third of the Four Pieces, op.81—was a bright idea for, after a slow introduction, it is sprightly and energetic, full of tension and not a little angst (and this is a capriccio?) and with a surprise ending which will throw your whole perception of this supposedly delightful music out of kilter. Now you’re sitting on the edge of your seat wondering just what Mendelssohn will toss at you next.

The second string quartet, although an obviously youthful work, isn’t in any way a student piece—he might only have been 18 years old when he wrote it, but, in the Mendelssohnian scheme of things, he was already a mature composer by this time, for this work was preceded by the Octet in E flat in 1825 and the Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture of 1826. It’s quite astonishing just how quickly Mendelssohn served his compositional apprenticeship and became a major, and very professional, figure on the musical scene. If the music doesn’t have the same depth of feeling or emotion which fills the op.44 work recorded here, it is more than just a pretty and colourful essay in the quartet medium. What Mendelssohn hadn’t quite learned by this time was that there is a fine line between pathos and bathos, and he doesn’t quite manage to avoid the latter in moments (but only moments) of his slow movement. The scherzo is a fun two part piece with slightly heavy handed outer sections and a trio which is as light as anything this composer ever wrote. The finale displays a deeper sensibility than, at first, one might expect. There is a very serious, and slightly subdued, fugue in the middle of the movement, which adds to the pathos (most certainly only this here), and although there is some sparkling writing for the instruments there is a feeling of tragedy as the music and the ending is quite unsettling.

The Fugue which follows, although having a late opus number, is, in fact, contemporary with the A minor Quartet. It’s not as searching a piece as it would have been had it been contemporaneous with the Capriccio which started this disk, but it is a pleasant makeweight and is most welcome between the two bigger works.

The 5th Quartet is a work of Mendelssohn’s real maturity and it is as assured a work as he ever wrote. The first movement is a long Allegro vivace where Mendelssohn never lets the tension, or the pace, slip for a moment; what a splendid achievement it is! The ensuing scherzo is heavier than might be expected, perhaps imbued with a sense of desperation, hence the hectic quality of the music. Slow movement and finale deliver a real punch of emotion and excitement, and bring this great, and there can be no other word to describe this music, quartet to its end.

The New Zealand Quartet plays these works with wonderful insight and understanding and they are not afraid to take chances when necessary, but always in the service of the music. Also, they are unafraid when it comes to being straight forward, as in the Fugue, for there’s very little you can do with this particular piece except play it and the New Zealanders make no attempt to blow it up into a bigger piece. This is intelligent music-making. The recording is excellent, bright and clear and with a nice perspective on the four musicians. The notes, whilst brief, are good.

This is certainly well worth investigating, if you don’t know the music, and adding to your collection if you do. I look forward to hearing more of the New Zealand Quartet, perhaps in Haydn or Beethoven.

Phil Muse
Audio Video Club of Atlanta, December 2009

I’m really high on the New Zealand String Quartet, consisting of violinists Helene Pohl and Douglas Beilan, violist Gillian Ansell, and cellist Rolf Gjelsten. They have a rich, distinctive tone and a perfect blend, especially in the critical lower voices. However smoothly they play together as an ensemble, there is never any mushiness, and one is always aware of their individual contributions. Further, they take each movement of a quartet with such conviction it’s as if it were the last piece they would ever play together.

I’ve reviewed this quartet twice previously, and I must say I like them better each time I hear them. The present offering, consisting of Quartets No. 2 in A Minor, Op. 13 and No. 5 in Eflat Major, Op. 44, No.3, with two posthumous pieces, Op. 81, Nos. 3 (Capriccio) and 4 (Fugue), is Volume 2 in a projected cycle of the String Quartets of Felix Mendelssohn. They really place Mendelssohn in perspective as the successor to Beethoven, being one who combined rigorous classical form with an abundance of romantic feeling, and in such a naturally spontaneous way that we aren’t even aware of their inherent tension. That’s no small accomplishment.

An enduring reason for the popularity of the A Minor Quartet lies in Mendelssohn’s quotation from his own song Frage (Question) in the Adagio opening to the first movement and heard again among the rush of sixteenth notes leading to the Allegro vivace proper. Ist es wahr, asks the poet, Is it true that you wait for me in the bower by the vineyard? That question is answered in the Presto finale, which opens rhetorically and then is interrupted in a most dramatic manner by the first violin, leading to a return to the question posed in the Adagio. This time, it is answered by music that scans with the second half of the poetic stanza: “What my heart feels, only he knows who can feel it, and who ever faithful, even faithfully mine will be.” There could be no more satisfying conclusion to a work that looks back for its formal design and many of its rhetorical devices to another famous A Minor Quartet, Beethoven’s Op. 135, which contained his last thoughts in the genre.

The Eflat Major Quartet has the greater gravity, a quality particularly noticeable in the C Minor Scherzo, which is somber, and even sinister in mood and contains elements of fugue. Perhaps that is the reason Mendelssohn qualifies this intense 4-minute movement with the marking Assai leggiero vivace, as a way of cautioning the performers not to make more of it than it deserves. For the Scherzo is not the heart of the matter; it is the following slow movement, Adagio non troppo, which speaks to the inner man (or woman) on a number of different levels. The members of the NZSQ take this movement so eloquently, and with such restrained feeling that we wish against all reason that it would just go on forever. It doesn’t, of course, and the ensuing finale, marked Molto allegro con fuoco, with fire, gives the quartet members ample opportunity to display their virtuosity.

Duncan Druce
Gramophone, November 2009

Detailed and confident readings from the impressive New Zealand Quartet

Mendelssohn’s quartets exhibit a remarkable blend of fantasy, emotion and intellectual rigour, allied to an insider’s expertise in writing for strings. The best performances, it seems to me, give due weight to each aspect. The New Zealand Quartet clearly love this music, and their strong sense of internal balance allows them to bring out many telling details that often go unnoticed: one example occurs just before the end of the first movement of the Quartet in E flat where a final recall of the second theme is accompanied by double-stopped cello pizzicati; given extra emphasis here, these dark tones cast a deeper shadow over the coda’s E flat radiance. In the same quartet’s finale, which can seem rather superficial, the New Zealanders’ confidence as ensemble players permits a flexible approach; the rhythmic momentum is never destroyed, but bends a little so that the characters of the different motifs can be enhanced.

Whenever Mendelssohn’s ardent, Romantic temperament comes to the fore, these players respond. Their passionate finale of Op 13 may not quite have the intensity of the Leipzig Quartet’s, but, at a slightly more measured tempo, the focus here is rather on expressive detail. Conversely, in Op 44 this version may not rival the rich tonal variety of the Eroica Quartet, with its historical approach, but maintains more forcefully the music’s vigorous impetus, while keeping that essential warmth of expression that’s missing from the brilliant, energetic, but dispassionate Pacifica Quartet.

With one more volume to come, this promises to be an outstanding set., October 2009

The New Zealand String Quartet continues to show warmth and skill aplenty in its second volume of Mendelssohn’s String Quartets. The standout here is Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 13, a Beethoven-influenced work (drawing on his Op. 95 and Op. 132 quartets) that nevertheless shows Mendelssohn developing his own voice in this medium. The fluidity of the playing, and the ease with which each player hands off material to the next, give the performance fine flow and a strong sense of thematic as well as instrumental unity. In Quartet No. 5 in E flat, Op. 44, No. 3, the scherzo’s fugue and double fugato are well handled, and the energetic finale comes across particularly well. Accompanying the quartets are two movements from a set of four published posthumously as Mendelssohn’s Op. 81: a Capriccio from 1843 and a Fugue from 1827. They are sometimes played as the third and fourth movements of a posthumous quartet, although in fact the work does not hang together particularly well in that form. Here, the New Zealand String Quartet treats them as individual pieces, focusing on the grace and lightness of the Capriccio and the rather staid formality of the Fugue. The top-notch ensemble work on this CD is what makes these performances stand out.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, September 2009

I was extremely enthusiastic when the first volume was released in March 2008 [8.570001], this one equally impressive both in terms of performances and excellence of sound. Though one of his most frequently heard quartets, the oft changing moods of the Second can too easily generate exaggerated dynamics, a trap the New Zealanders do not fall into. The scherzo is pure delight in its wispy delicacy, the playing so crisp and neat, while the dramatic outburst at the opening of the finale—that comes straight from Beethoven—is integrated into the mood of the movement. He was just twenty-one when he completed the score, almost nine years before the Fifth, by which time he had shed the many influences that came into his youth. Though still vivacious, it is here differentiated from the earlier one, by the added degree of weight. The Adagio that follows has more sadness than we oft find and is in marked contrast to the mischievous element the quartet introduce into the finale. The disc is completed by two single movements published posthumously under the title Capriccio in E minor and the Fugue in E flat minor. They come from the opposite ends of his career and may well have been discarded ideas. Most welcome and played with that precision and inner clarity that characterises the whole disc. Intonation is good, and the overall quality is most pleasing, Rolf Gjelsten’s cello a nice warming factor. The quartet travelled to Canada to take advantage of the excellent sound quality available, and it would be difficult to improve upon.

Mike D. Brownell, September 2009

A particular standout on this disc is violist Gillian Ansell, who produces an impressively powerful, muscular sound that draws much-deserved attention to the viola line…Tempos are lively but controlled, rubato is used sparingly and with control, and dynamics are used to great dramatic effect. Kudos to the New Zealand String Quartet…

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group