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Beethoven and Mendelssohn Quartets

Mendelssohn: String Quartet in E, op.12 (1829); String Quartet in F minor, op.80 (1847)
String Quartet in E, Harp, op.74 (1809)

Emerson Quartet (Eugene Drucker, Philip Selzer – violins, Lawrence Dutton - viola, David Finckel - cello) 

Wigmore Hall, London: 17 November 2009

This centenary year has widened appreciation of Mendelssohn [pictured age 12] for many of us. Apart from the Violin Concerto and the Italian Symphony I had been uncaring and unknowledgeable. These two Quartets went a long way in my new found admiration for this composer.

The opus 12 Quartet, written only 2 years after Beethoven’s death, is already full of the true romantic voice, and, despite being written by a 20 year old, it is a fully mature work. A serious, and quite Beethovenian, introduction prefaced a first movement whose material was very easy going, but which received a real working out in the development. This was as masterly a first sonata movement as any composer ever wrote. The ensuing Canzonetta was a deadly unfunny scherzo, but yet it had a wry smile on its face which wasn’t to be removed by the gossamer thin trio. The slow movement, perhaps, serves the purpose of an introduction to the finale rather than its being a movement in itself, and the music tends to make one believe this. The finale is wild and dramatic, a real storming movement which, cleverly, manages to bring back the music of the opening to achieve a relaxed coda.
This work is a stunning achievement and the Emerson’s did Mendelsohn proud with a performance which took us to the very edge of a new world and showed us the future; no apology for the classical period, this was a bold step forward to where no composer had gone before, full bloodied romanticism.


The opus 80 Quartet shows a fully mature composer working at the height of his powers. The first movement is a fiery and furious piece of writing, and even allowing for moments of relaxation, Mendelssohn never really drops the tension and urgency of his argument. The ensuing scherzo keeps the momentum going, but now gives us some rest periods, which have become essential. The slow movement is a calm oasis in the middle of all this strife but the finale merely throws us back into the fray and never lets go. This is an impressive work and is yet another step along the road of romanticism. Even though Mendelssohn’s beloved sister, Fanny, had died on 14 May 1847 and, following a series of strokes, the composer died on 4 November, a month after completing this Quartet, there’s nothing valedictory about his music, no slamming closed the door, it always points forwards. Again the Emerson’s played this music as if it were a young stallion, throwing themselves into the piece and really making the most of music which needs this kind of wild advocacy.

The Beethoven Harp Quartet hadn’t fared as well. Although the outer movements were well done – the variations of the finale, especially, receiving very good individual personalities – the second, slow, and scherzo movements seemed rather bland and not well thought out; there seemed to be a lack of commitment to the ebb and flow of the music.


But this was Mendelsohn’s night and he was given excellent performances which were eye, and ear, opening.

Bob Briggs