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.
In October 2016, to bring his acclaimed Mendelssohn symphonies cycle to a rousing conclusion, Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the London Symphony Orchestra – accompanied by Lucy Crowe, Jurgita Adamonytė, Michael Spyres and the Monteverdi Choir – gave two performances of the composer’s symphony-cantata, ‘Lobgesang’. Also known as ‘Hymn of Praise’, it sits slightly uneasily with Mendelssohn’s four other symphonies, with its extended last movement involving soloists and chorus. However, the idea was not without precedent – the work has its roots in both Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (‘Choral’), and Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette.
The Borodin Trio's recording of Mendelssohn's two piano trios was first released in 1985 and reissued in 2009, in time for the Mendelssohn bicentennial. The performances may not be as warmly opulent as fans of the group might like. Fans used to their big-vibrato, heart-on-the-sleeve approach to the trios of Schubert and Brahms could miss the Trio's usual ultra-lush ensemble and super-heated sonority.
The symphonies are well-performed. 'Reformation' is an inspired live recording. The 12 string symphonies, written in Mendelssohn's youth, are also included. The concertos are exceptional - the violin concerto is as good as you'll find anywhere. The oratorios Elijah and Paulus are included, as well as the complete chamber works and a diverse assortment of choral works. The last few discs include the Lied ohne worte, the epic organ sonatas, and excellent renditions of A Midsummer Night's Dream and Fingal's Cave. While there are a few sketchy performances in the choral and chamber works, the performances and recordings are generally very solid, and the body of work couldn't be better.
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.
For those new to Mendelssohn's music, this might look like a recording of some major works of the composer; be aware that they're virtually unknown music of Mendelssohn's early teens, first published in complete form only in 1999. For those already a fan of Mendelssohn, however, they're very intriguing works that show the developing talents of the young composer in a different light than do the set of twelve-string symphonies that are his most frequently performed works of the period.
It is coming up to five years since Sarah Chang, then in her early teens, made her brilliant and moving concerto recording debut in the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto on EMI (12/93). Her concerto recordings for the label since then have been of brilliant showpiece works like the Lalo Symphonie espagnole (5/96) and the Paganini First Concerto (1/95) rather than of the central repertory. It is good here to have her remarkable artistry revealed again at full stretch in astonishingly mature interpretations of the Mendelssohn and Sibelius concertos.