MENDELSSOHN: String Quartets Nos. 3 and 6 / Capriccio Op. 81, No. 3 (Aurora Quartet/ Victor Ledin) (Naxos: 8.550861)
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Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809 - 1847)
String Quartets Vol. 1
\Felix" (Latin for "the happy one") was a well-chosen name for Mendelssohn, for the Goddess of Fortune gave him her choicest gifts, a diadem of genius for his curly head, inherited wealth from his father, a winning charm of manner and a graceful upright physique. The frustrations, maladjustments, and conflicts of most great composers make the life of Felix Mendelssohn as refreshing as sunshine. Born in Hamburg on 3rd February 1809, Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy was the grandson of the Jewish pragmatic philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn - known as the "German Plato" - and son of the banker, Abraham Mendelssohn. His mother Lea Salomon-Bartholdy was his first piano teacher. He studied with Ludwig Berger (piano), Carl Friedrich Zelter (theory), and Wilhelm Hennig (violin). At nine he played the piano part of a trio by Wolff in public; at ten he sang alto in the Singakademie; at eleven he was introduced to Goethe who spoke the highest praises of his piano-playing and insisted that the wunderkind stay with him in Baden for two weeks. At their first meeting the poet requested he playa Bach fugue, and though he forgot a part of the composition, he was able to extemporize the missing portion, weaving contrapuntal lines into a heavy brocaded baroque fabric that pleased all who were present for the performance. Shortly after Beethoven's Ninth Symphony came out, Mendelssohn, then fifteen could play it all on the piano without a score. At seventeen he wrote an overture to Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream
. Light, aerial fairy music was his unsurpassed speciality.
Between 1827 and 1835, Mendelssohn's activity took him from city to city on the Continent and in England. His popularity increased to a point where he was deluged with invitations to the finest homes. In 1829 he conducted the first performance, after Bach's death, of the great St. Matthew Passion. The next several years saw the production of many important works, among which were the first volume of the Songs Without Words, the Hebrides Overture, the Italian and Reformation symphonies and the G minor Piano Concerto. In 1835, Mendelssohn became the conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig, and eight years after that he helped to found the Leipzig Conservatory.
When Mendelssohn stopped after a gruelling concert schedule in England for a day of rest in Frankfurt am Main on 8th May 1847 he was brought word of his sister Fanny's untimely death. She had been rehearsing with a chamber group for a performance in the family home when she suddenly lost consciousness and died a few hours later. This was more than Mendelssohn could bear. He himself fell to the ground unconscious, a blood vessel in his head ruptured mirroring the phantom hemorrhage of his beloved Fanny, sharer of his hopes, and emotional double of his inner self. There seemed no joy left in the world for Mendelssohn from that point on. Mendelssohn a young man of thirty-eight died of a paralytic stroke on 4th November 1847. He was put to rest in the family vault in Berlin.
Mendelssohn's chamber music is "academically romantic", gracefully imaginative and classic in style. The Quartet in F minor, Opus 80, however, is atypical of Mendelssohn's light and airy style. Composed after Fanny's death, the Quartet is intentionally autobiographical. It can be described as a musical lament to his sister, for in it one hears the inner echoing pain of Mendelssohn's personal grief for Fanny. The first movement rages with a furious theme interrupted by the wailings of a lost and searching voice intoned by the first violin. The second movement is punctuated by pressing syncopations and a raw, gruff chromatic harmony that lends it a macabre quality. The third movement echoes wails from the first and then develops into a sort of elegy. The final movement is once again like the first movement, raging and restless like an animal from the wild, constrained to the unnatural confinement of a cage.
The Quartet in D major, Opus 44, No.1, was completed on 24th July 1838. It was the last completed work of the three quartets comprising Opus 44, although the publisher grouped it first. An outstanding feature of this work is the brilliant running virtuosity required of the first violin throughout the piece. The first of the four movements can be described as light, lively and prancing in nature. The second movement is a rather antique-sounding Minuet, somewhat rococo in style. It is dainty and exquisitely melodious. The Andante which follows it is a lovely song without words, delicately scored and charmingly harmonized. The two middle movements are the central, or pivotal section of the quartet. The finale concludes the work as if with a recapitulation of the first movement in its spirit and sonorous brilliance.
The Capriccio and Fugue, Opus 81, Nos. 3 and 4, were first published in February 1850. The Fugue is the earlier of the two works, written by Mendelssohn in November 1827. The Capriccio was composed on 5th July 1843. It is not clear whether Mendelssohn wanted to produce a collection of pieces for string quartet or whether these were the beginnings of incomplete quartets. What is clear is that the four quartet pieces have no musical kinship and as a result tend to be played separately. The Fugue was written at the time Mendelssohn was completing his Quartet in A Minor, Opus 13. This gentle work cleverly conceals Mendelssohn's craftsmanship and fugal ingenuity. The Capriccio is in two sections - an opening Andante akin in style to some of his songs without words followed by an Allegro fugato in strict contrapuntal style.
The Aurora String Quartet
The New York Times has praised the Aurora String Quartet as "among the Pacific elite" of chamber ensembles in the West. All four players are long time members of the San Francisco Symphony. In 1983 Edo De Waart asked the quartet to perform in the Symphony's subscription series as soloists, and they appeared as part of the Symphony's Beethoven Festival in both 1990 and 1992. The Aurora String Quartet is currently an ensemble-in-residence for San Francisco's Old First Church Concert Series, and performs regularly throughout the Bay Area. In 1991, they performed at the Mozart Festival in Tahiti. Critics have applauded the Aurora String Quartet for its incisive, resonant, lyrical style and rhythmic intensity. The quartet has mastered equally the repertoire of the Classical eighteenth and Romantic nineteenth centuries. The ensemble also musically commands the modern repertoire and has a vital interest in performances of new twentieth century works. The Aurora String Quartet has given West Coast premieres of works by Benjamin Lees, George Tsontakis, Robert Helps, and David Macbride, and has performed works by John Harbison, Charles Wuorinen, George Perle, Henri Dutilleux, Andrew Imbrie, and Sir Michael Tippett. In 1989, Benjamin Lees wrote his String Quartet No.4 for the Aurora String Quartet. During the 1992-93 season they gave the world premiere of a commissioned work by David Macbride and the West Coast première of Steven Jaffe's String Quartet No.1.