An exceptionally fine performance of the Mendelssohn string quintets by Jaime Laredo, Ani Kavafian, Heiichiro Ohyama, Kim Kashkashian and Sharon Robinson can be found on CD45883 (61 minutes: ADD). These are rhythmically alert and spirited readings, played with great charm and eloquence. They are an especially welcome addition to a catalogue that sports no rival version of No. 1 and only one of No. 2. The 1978 recording is one of the best in the batch, exceptionally well balanced with a fine feeling of depth and presence. Strongly recommended. (Gramophone)
The three works on this album were all written by Max Bruch at the end of his life, after World War I, when he was more than 80 years old. They were not published until after his death in 1920, and then they were forgotten due to Nazi bans on Bruch's music because of his supposed Jewish ancestry, wartime manuscript loss, and the self-serving actions of modernist gatekeepers. In the world they depict, the Great War might as well never have happened, but perhaps that is part of the point.
They mean well, their hearts are in it, and they clearly have the chops. But ultimately, the Prazák Quartet's and Kocian Quartet's recording of Mendelssohn's ineffably evanescent String Octet doesn't quite make the grade. Because for all their good intentions, the Prazák and Kocian quartets' performance does not quite capture the work's ineffable evanescence, its sense of youthful impetuosity and masterful lucidity or its feeling for achingly lovely melodies and strongly effective rhythms.
The first two of the three string quartets of Mendelssohn's Op. 44 were recorded by the Cherubini Quartett in 1990. With its transparent textures, elegant phrasing, and refined execution, the ensemble is temperamentally suited to this music, which seems to require those qualities above others. While Mendelssohn acquired many advanced compositional techniques from studying Beethoven's quartets, he never presumed to plumb the master's spiritual depths, and preferred instead to emulate the Classical gentility and poise of Haydn and Mozart. The String Quartet No. 3 in D major, Op. 44/1, is predominantly exuberant and optimistic, and the Cherubini Quartett delivers it in a light, effervescent style, and only occasionally touches on the deeper passions that Mendelssohn prized in this work. More serious and fervid in expression, the String Quartet No. 4 in E minor, Op. 44/2, evokes the tense emotions of eighteenth century Sturm und Drang. The Cherubini Quartett renders the work with a darker coloration and richer tone, but these shadings neither interfere with the clarity of the parts nor weigh down Mendelssohn's fleet lines.
Hausmusik’s performance of the Mendelssohn Octet comes with the advantage of a sensibly steady tempo for the famous scherzo, allowing for maximum transparency and lightness; and a dazzling finale in which for once the cello’s first scurrying fugal entry sounds crystal clear. The First String Quintet, and the Op. 13 Quartet – Mendelssohn’s homage to the late quartets of the recently deceased Beethoven – are also miraculous products of the composer’s teenage years. The Quintet is quite beautifully done here, but the Quartet, like the late Quintet, Op. 87, is rather lacking in tension and urgency. Woldemar Bargiel was Schumann’s brother-in-law. For all its obvious weaknesses, his Octet contains some attractive ideas, and Divertimenti’s performance makes a strong case for it. Divertimenti is impressive in the Mendelssohn, too – though its finale is not quite as exhilarating as Hausmusik’s; and in the last resort neither group can quite match the élan of the ASMF Chamber Ensemble.
The two String Quintets are considered to be among Brahms' greatest chamber works. The first was a favorite of the composer, and he wrote to his publisher that, 'you'll never receive anything more beautiful from me.' The second was written when Brahms had all but retired. When he delivered the work to the publisher he wrote, 'with this note you can take leave of my music, because it is high time to stop.' The Nash Ensemble, having recently celebrated their 40th anniversary, are having something of a golden period. Their previous Onyx discs of Turnage and Mendelssohn received rave reviews.