I have four favorite string quartets making records today - the American Dover and Escher, the French Quatuor Hanson, and the German Aris. (The Pacifica is a close runner-up.) And I have recently discovered another group with much potential, the French Quatuor Van Kuijk, with their new recording of the Mendelssohn Six.
Unlike their Mozart (and even their Schubert), which leans toward the "historically informed" school of playing (with a slightly abrasive sound, sans vibrato, almost as if on authentic instruments), their Mendelssohn is completely different. It's as richly Classical, with a generous forward-looking Romantic warmth, as you could ever want. Yet at the same time it's fresh and invigorating. With a vibrant, exciting sound; clarified textures; ardent, sweetly singing phrasing; unanimity of ensemble; and endless variety of color and vibrato intensity - this group is very impressive here in Mendelssohn. Their playing exhibits many of the best qualities of the Dover (precision of ensemble and articulation, and incredible dynamic range), the Escher (sheer energy and involvement, plus that gorgeous, full-bodied sound), the Hanson (imagination and impressive dynamics) and the Aris (sweetness of expression and musical insight) in what is surely the most completely satisfying and exciting Mendelssohn cycle I've heard.
And that's saying a lot. They are fully the equal of the incomparable set from the Escher Quartet on BIS, and even remind me of the sweetly singing one from the Pacifica on Cedille (who, unfortunately, are not nearly as well recorded as the others). And, well, the Dover haven't gotten around to recording these yet, so we'll just have to continue to wait on them. (And I'm getting impatient.)
Put simply, this set from Quatuor Van Kuijk is the most joyful, exuberant and articulate Mendelssohn you're likely to hear. Complete with perfectly chosen tempos throughout, a stunning dynamic range, dazzling precision of ensemble and articulation - PLUS superb recorded sound from Alpha Classics - this is truly sensational from beginning to end.
To illustrate just how terrific this is, I wasn't in the slightest bit in the mood for Mendelssohn. But after spending quite a lot of time recently with some heavy symphonic music (courtesy of John Wilson and company), I was more than ready for some chamber music. And Volume 1 of this Mendelssohn was sitting there, attracting my attention (and the newly released Volume 2 was on order) so I thought I'd give it a try to pass the time. Instantly, from the very first notes, I was engrossed in the music, captivated for the entirety of the disc - all 82 minutes of it!
The first two Quartets are continuations of Beethoven's (coming just 1 - 3 years after his final Opus 135) and the Van Kuijk treat them as such, with gravitas worthy of Beethoven. Beginning with #2 (which was actually his first, composed 2 years before his second was published as "#1"), I was impressed with some really marvelous leggiero bowing in the first movement - combined with crisp, rhythmic precision, vitality and the ever-expanding virtuosity of Mendelssohn. And similarly in #1 as well, tempos are urgent, textures are clarified and there is self-assurance of young Mendelssohn in these committed performances of both early works.
By the time we get to the Third (written in 1837, ten years after the First), Mendelssohn has established an even stronger voice - with more authority, ingenuity and dynamic fervency, taking us steadfastly toward Romanticism. And the Van Kuijk really blossom here. In the first movement, the 1st violin's sweeping arpeggios, followed by those upward leaping 7ths in the second subject, soar skyward with jubilance. There is no sliding or scooping in the playing. It is executed perfectly - with crisp, precise dotted rhythms, superbly detache - lifting the music from the page with irrepressible joy. It's not smoothly on-the-string as I often hear. No, they really work at it with verve and enthusiasm. Listening to the Van Kuijk play this, I knew I was experiencing something extraordinary. This is exceptional string quartet playing.
The excellence continues with Volume 2, recorded a year later. Saving #6 for last (as should be), I skipped ahead on the CD to #4 and was bowled over with the passion of the 1st movement (as directed in the tempo indication), without too much intensity, and played at a true Allegro. The energy continues in the Scherzo and, especially the driven finale - both taken decisively up to Mendelssohn's dictated speeds (Allegro molto and Presto, respectively) and played with thrilling precision. The central Andante is a lovely respite, flowing with a natural singing quality, simple in its expression. All combined, this is one of the most convincing, exciting, and completely satisfying #4s I've heard. It has all the necessary "appassionato" without being too dramatic or intense for Mendelssohn.
The passion continues in #5, but with even more vigor. And again, understanding that tempos are of supreme importance, the Van Kuijk sprint through the 1st movement at a true Vivace - as marked - with an incredible display of virtuosity. But, just as in #4, their playing is so assured, it never sounds hectic or breathless. Just exhilarating. And the finale is as con fuoco as you could ever want; I can just see the fire in their eyes!
Finally, going back to track 1 for the final Quartet (#6), I try to understand why it appears first on the CD rather than last. Perhaps it's because the conclusion of #5 is so exultant it's difficult for anything to follow it. Nonetheless, this performance of #6 is distinguished and ideally should have been presented in its proper order.
There's no denying this is a more serious and deeply considered piece of music. This was Mendelssohn's final completed work, written in response to the death of his beloved sister, Fanny. It's interesting to witness Mendelssohn at full maturity in his final quartet, composed some 10 years after the three Opus 44s. But even here, the Quatuor Van Kuijk bring all the life and fresh inspiration exhibited in the earlier works. They don't weigh it down unnecessarily with grandiosity, yet still afford it all the breadth and poise it deserves. This reading is remarkable for its suddenness of dynamic contrasts and lightness of touch - both of which actually heighten the emotional impact. And while the piece daringly looks ahead toward Schumann and Brahms, this group ensures the essence of Mendelssohn remains intact - to wondrous effect.
What makes this second Volume especially rewarding is that with the increasing earnestness the Van Kuijk draw from these works, their playing never turns gruff or heavy or aggressive. They don't try to sound bigger - our louder - than they are. They are at all times a string quartet, not a symphony orchestra. Even in the most demanding fortissimo passages, with maximum bow-on-string articulation, their sound is commandingly powerful yet remains cultivated and, above all, musical - reminding me of the superb Escher Quartet playing this music on BIS.
It is very impressive that Alpha Classics has managed to squeeze all 6 quartets onto just 2 CDs. (Each disc lasts over 82 minutes!) And even though they aren't laid out exactly in chronological order, they are at least grouped appropriately on the two discs so they can be easily played in order without having to switch from disc to disc. (And considering that published #2 was actually composed first, those on Disc One are technically in chronological order. But I'm still puzzled why the 6th is placed first on the second volume.)
Alpha Records has struck gold with this set. Excellent production, superb recorded sound, and truly some of the best string quartet playing I've heard since the Dover's Beethoven cycle for Cedille. In fact, if I were to listen to this set without knowing who was playing it, I would unhesitatingly exclaim: "Oh! The Dover Quartet has finally recorded Mendelssohn!" That I am uttering Quatuor Van Kuijk in the same breath as the Dover Quartet is the highest praise I could possibly give.