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Jerry Dubins
Fanfare, November 2010

In Fanfare 33:4, I was favorably impressed by the second installment in the New Zealand String Quartet’s Mendelssohn cycle for Naxos. This is the third and, I would guess, final volume in the series. The first volume was apparently not sent for review because it does not show up in the Archive. Because the numbering of Mendelssohn’s works is so out of sync with their chronology—the string quartets being no exception—some recapping of the prior review may be helpful in assessing this survey.

Quartet Number Date completed Vol. Naxos No. in chron. order

E♭, op. “0” 1823 3 8.570003

2, op. 13 10/1827 2 8.570002

1, op. 12 9/1829 1 8.570001

4, op. 44/2 6/1837 1 8.570001

5, op. 44/3 2/1838 2 8.570002

3, op. 44/1 7/1838 3 8.570003

6, op. 80 9/1847 1 8.570001

In addition to the above, between 1827 and 1847, Mendelssohn wrote four completely independent, stand-alone movements for string quartet that were published posthumously in 1850 under the single opus number of 81. Playing these pieces together, however, as if they constituted a unified string quartet, is absurd, as noted in my prior review. No composer of this period, who had not taken complete leave of his senses, would have ended a work in the key of E♭-Major that began a semitone higher in the key of E Major, and to top it off, written a scherzo in a key (A Minor) that is removed from the key of the concluding movement (E♭-Major) by a diminished fifth (aka a tritone). I commended the New Zealand Quartet for at least having the good sense to split these movements up between volumes:

Theme and Variations in E, op. 81/1 3 8.570003

Scherzo in a, op. 81/2 3 8.570003

Capriccio in e, op. 81/3 2 8.570002

Fugue in E♭, op. 81/4 2 8.570002

It remains to be seen whether the ensemble will follow up with a fourth volume containing the complete study fugues for string quartet the boy wonder wrote in 1821 at the age of 12. If so, it will be the most complete survey of Mendelssohn’s works for string quartet on disc that I know.

While there have been previous recordings of the early (1823) E♭-Major Quartet, this is the first time I’ve seen an opus number of “0” assigned to it. Since it’s not the first work Mendelssohn ever wrote, it would have made more sense to assign the number “0” to the quartet (as in Bruckner’s Symphony No. 0) rather than to the opus number. But done is done. If I were building a library from scratch, I would be completely content with this Naxos survey of Mendelssohn’s string quartets.

Though some 13 years separate the D-Major Quartet that opens the disc from the composer’s famous Octet of 1825, the writing in this much later work recalls the earlier piece. From its initial catapulted launch of an upward arpeggio in the first violin, the first movement is a virtual nonstop volley that plays with the same figure, tossing it between voices and counterpointing it against itself in overlapping entrances. The Menuetto and the Andante espressivo movements sing of the connubial bliss Mendelssohn must have felt having just returned from his honeymoon, while the Presto con brio echoes the first movement of the “Italian” Symphony, completed five years earlier. This was a happy time in the composer’s life, and the D-Major Quartet—the first in a set of three quartets published collectively under the opus number 44 that Mendelssohn dedicated to the Crown Prince Gustav of Sweden—is veritably bursting at the seams with brilliant, scintillating passagework and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of lyrical melody.

That Mendelssohn’s own musical personality is already emerging in his early E♭-Major Quartet, op. “0,” should come as no surprise. By 1823, the 14-year-old had already written his 12 string symphonies and had honed his skills at counterpoint and writing for strings. But neither should we imagine that at this young age he is not also relying on and imitating earlier models. The Adagio ma non troppo surely exhibits more than a passing familiarity with the Adagio affetuoso of Beethoven’s F-Major Quartet, op. 18/1, though the adolescent Mendelssohn can’t quite muster Beethoven’s sturm und drang outbursts. The Minuetto, on the other hand, is pure Haydn; its humorous hiccupping figure might easily be mistaken for a movement from one of Papa Joseph’s quartets.

According to note author Keith Anderson, the stand-alone Theme and Variations movement that ended up as op. 81/1 was actually written in 1847, the last year of Mendelssohn’s life, and was intended as a movement in a new quartet. As we know, of course, that didn’t happen; instead, what did happen is that it became the first movement in a posthumously patched together “quartet” composed of pieces written much earlier. Thus, the E-Minor Scherzo, op. 81/2, sounds very much like it could be an outtake from the Midsummer Night’s Dream Scherzo.

The New Zealand String Quartet plays with a great deal of panache. There’s buoyancy, sparkle, and wit in these performances, not to mention engagement on an emotional level without affectation. It goes without saying of course that technical matters of tempo, dynamics, intonation, bowing, breathing, and balance are totally tidy. Indicated repeats are observed, recorded sound is top-notch, and Naxos’s budget price makes this a steal. If you’ve already invested in one or more complete sets by recently reviewed ensembles, such as the Emerson, Gewandhaus, and Pacifica Quartets, you probably don’t need another one. But as I said above, if I were just starting to build a collection, or, even if I just wanted to fill in a gap or two in an existing one, the New Zealand Quartet’s Mendelssohn would be right near the top of my list. Strongly recommended.

Brian Wilson
MusicWeb International, October 2010

This is the third and last volume in the Naxos series of Mendelssohn’s String Quartets...Bob Briggs thought the second volume (8.570002, Nos. 2 and 5) well worth investigating and adding to one’s collection—see review. An earlier, also well-liked, Naxos set of recordings by the Aurora Quartet remains in the catalogue (8.550861-3, available separately)...The early unnumbered Quartet ‘0’ and the shorter pieces may not have quite the cachet of the numbered works, but they are well worth hearing and Quartet No.3 certainly is: it’s reputed to have been Mendelssohn’s own favourite among the middle-period set, Op.44/1-3...wonderfully natural and unforced...The Naxos recording, too, is very good throughout and the notes are all that Keith Anderson’s authorship guarantees. All in all, the new release is sufficient to make me plan to investigate one or both of those earlier New Zealand Quartet CDs of could do much worse than lay out the small price required for the new Naxos release and its predecessors.

Elaine Fine
American Record Guide, September 2010

The Quartet in E-flat that the 14-year-old Mendelssohn did not intend for publication was published posthumously in 1879, and the numbering of the previously string quartets was already set (even though the first two were not published in chronological order), so the charming piece without an opus number is often forgotten. Any kind of name (even if it is “zero”) is better than no name. This is not “new” Mendelssohn, but it is still true Mendelssohn, and it certainly deserves a place in the body of Mendelssohn’s chamber music.

I enjoy this installment in the New Zealand Quartet’s Mendelssohn cycle as much as I liked the first volume that has Quartets 1, 4, and 6 (8.570001). Again the tempo choices and balances are excellent, and everything in the music is crystal clear, even in the very difficult trio of II in the Third Quartet. These musicians make the music exciting not by superimposing an artificial interpretation on it, but rather by bringing out so beautifully what is already there.

Phil Muse
Audio Video Club of Atlanta, July 2010

The New Zealand String quartet, consisting of Helene Pohl, violin I, Douglas Beilman, violin II, Gillian Ansell, viola, and Rolf Gjelsten, cello, here conclude their excellent Mendelssohn cycle. Included are Quartet No. 3 in D Major, Op. 44/1 and the early Quartet in E-flat, Op. ‘0’ plus the two extant movements from his unfinished Op. 81. The performances show the NZSQ in top form, with all the style and zip that Mendelssohn requires. They also have a very professional way of sublimating individual artistry to the needs of the whole. That is very important with this composer especially, for his part writing is very smoothly integrated; even when the first violin takes the lead with a typically delicious opening movement melody, it does not drive the work itself. The beautiful blend and mutual sympathy these musicians show in their performances are essential elements.

Quartet 3 has always been a Mendelssohn favorite, for reasons soon apparent. There’s a zestful flair to the opening movement, marked Molto allegro vivace (it’s all that, brother). The Scherzo is in the form of a slow, suave Minuet, so relaxed we might take it for the slow movement if we were not mindful of its form and metre. The actual slow movement, marked Andante espressivo con moto, is, well, “expressive,” so much so that it lures us with blandishments until we are almost beyond our depth. The finale, Presto con brio, concludes with all the panache with which the work began.

The two movements from the Opus 81 Quartet that lay unfinished at Mendelssohn’s untimely death at age 38 betray no premonition of that event, which was sudden and unexpected. The Theme & Variations, Op. 81/1 are handled with the utmost naturalness, while the nimble footed Scherzo, Op. 81/2, inevitably recalls A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The early Opus ‘0’ Quartet is so called because the composer never published it in his lifetime. It shows a grasp of form, harmony, counterpoint, and color well beyond Mendelssohn’s age when he composed it. The jaunty opening movement is succeeded by an Adagio suffused with a gentle melancholy. The very Haydnesque Minuet enfolds a contrasted Trio full of youthful romantic feeling. The finale, a freely handled Fugue, gives further proof that Mendelssohn, at 14, knows what a string quartet is all about. The rest was left to time and life experiences., June 2010

There is greater seriousness for strings in the third and last volume of the New Zealand String Quartet’s Mendelssohn cycle. This CD includes Mendelssohn’s earliest completed quartet, written when he was 14—which, it should be noted, was not “young” for the boy genius, who had already created numerous string symphonies and other finely crafted works. Although the Quartet Op. “0” is not as technically demanding or emotionally expressive as Mendelssohn’s later ones, it is well structured and includes, as its finale, a particularly impressive fugue. Also here is the D Major work from Op. 44, the first of three in that set although the last of them to be written. The New Zealand players clearly appreciate both the drama and the songfulness of this work, performing it with strength and beauty in equal measure and providing some real thrills in the Presto con brio finale. The CD also includes two movements that Mendelssohn wrote in the last year of his life, presumably intending them to become part of another quartet, which he was never to finish. The Tema con variazoni is elegant and well wrought; the Scherzo, which is somewhat reminiscent of the early music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, shows a lightness of spirit that has come to be thought of as Mendelssohnian. All these works are performed here with fine ensemble and an excellent sense of give-and-take among the performers—their complete set of the Mendelssohn Quartets is simply top-notch. [Vols 1 & 2 are available on Naxos 8.570001 and 8.570002]

David Denton
David's Review Corner, May 2010

Mendelssohn wrote his six numbered quartets through much of his mature life, choosing to ignore the work he had completed in his fourteenth year. Yet in this very happy and uncomplicated performance that student score has so much to offer in terms of enjoyment. Many other composers would surely have been glad to have owned it. It is also a score of some length clocking-in at almost half and hour. True it has its roots in Haydn and Mozart, but already shows a fresh and personal style, the fugue in the finale a long way from its academic title. Turn to the Third Quartet, composed fifteen years later, and you find a far more complex personality at work, the dark drama of the opening movement contrasting heavily with the calm of the two central movements and a buoyant finale. Two single movements, that would have been intended for a further work, complete the disc, the third and final volume in this cycle from the highly regarded New Zealand String Quartet. Some passing moments of questionable intonation detract little from their account of the Third Quartet, and their sound textures are open and transparent. A highly attractive budget price cycle well recorded.

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