Mendelssohn String Quartet in E-flat, (posth.)

performed by the Talich quartet

To be clear, this is not Mendelssohn’s String Quartet no. 1 (which is confusingly also in E-flat major) but it is his first string quartet. This one was written in 1823, but not published until 1879. At the time of writing, the fourteen-year old had just finished his string symphonies (the first few of which we talked about earlier in the week), and it would be another six years before he completed his quartet that was published as his quartet no. 1, also in E-flat major (1829).

I find it interesting that he wrote a dozen string symphonies of various lengths and complexity before he finally got around to doing a quartet. Granted, the string symphonies (at least 1-3) are scored (although divided) into four staves, like a quartet would be. Speculation would be that it’s a more naked, exposed environment with only four instruments, and maybe less potential for harmony and complexity (if anything more than violins were divided). In any case, he wrote a dozen string symphonies (some rather hefty) before getting around to a quartet, this one not getting a designation of its own, having never been published in his lifetime.

I’m not sure why this one didn’t get published, if it was overlooked or perhaps considered not fit for publication, but it has an immediate maturity or completeness of concept, and what it sounds decidedly unlike is the string symphonies that preceded it. The subjects of the first movement have an intimacy, a charming sweetness that’s beyond perfectly suited to the quartet. Like…. I like this a lot. I’m not the biggest fan of Mendelssohn, overall, but this sounds like a wonderfully-executed quartet. There’s contrast and expression, and the balance and interaction of both themes with each other, as well as the atmosphere among the four players, is all wonderful.

This isn’t necessarily a small work. It’s not a throwaway of a quartet, coming in at almost 23 minutes. There’s (unsurprisingly) some wonderful counterpoint that happens in the development of the first movement, really exciting writing, virtuosity, a pretty full-bodied first movement, before we move on to the second movement. The movements get progressively shorter, and we have a compelling slow movement, marked adagio, that at least for me calls Beethoven to mind. It’s not just first violin here. There’s a great balance and dialogue of the melody passing around, without ever losing the overall line, the melancholy, slightly heartbroken melody that begins the adagio, which returns after some more lighthearted passages to round out the movement.

Next is (obviously) a minuet, perhaps the most immediately charming thing in the work so far. It’s one of those things that causes a sigh of not relief as much as simple satisfaction, the way you might when a cool breeze whishes by on a warm spring day. It’s playful and cheery, but not goofy or mischievous. The trio, in contrast, seems almost uneasy, and a bit tense, but still related to the minuet’s theme. There are some dramatic moments, a pause, a roar from the cello, before things get back into gear. There seems to be more at play here than a simple ABA form for this movement, and it’s a welcome additional complexity.

Could there be any more suitable way for the young counterpoint-obsessed composer to end his earliest quartet than with a fugue? And would you expect it to be anything less than exquisite? Buzzing with energy and bubbly strings, it kind of sounds like what it feels like to be trying to keep up with a friend running down a hill, and to get ahead of your own feet, to run knowing that you could go tumbling any moment, but you don’t. Everything’s in place here, but it seems so busy, all the gears whizzing and spinning, but always in constant contact, intact as a whole. It’s quite a breathtaking end to what wasn’t nearly as vibrant or rigorous a composition, but it definitely makes a statement and ends with a bang before everyone comes together and ends outstandingly sweetly.

I feel a little bit…. unqualified to talk about these works in anything resembling a large context because I haven’t listened to his later quartets, or (dare I admit) even the octet for which he is so famous, but we’ll get there soon. I assume, though, that this little quartet, having been unpublished and overlooked, is only an inkling of the composer’s later genius, so I will be looking forward to that. With only a handful of quartets to his name, around half as many as Schubert, I thought it wise to take my time and not do two a week and be done in a month, so we’ll get around to his other stuff eventually, and I look forward to putting this early effort in the context of his other, more celebrated work. Stay tuned.

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