I have a fondness for Mendelssohn's String Quartets. And I have a love/hate relationship with most recordings of them. I usually hear them sounding either too gruff, slightly aggressive, or a little chilly and detached. Sometimes it's because of the playing itself (a gruffness usually the fault of the cellist; a chilly detachment a simple case of lacking spontaneity); sometimes it's the recording (too close and course); and, worse, sometimes both. Other times, a group seems to want to make these wonderful creations something more than they are - something larger than life; something more profound, to the point of bringing a Beethovenian seriousness and heaviness to them, which doesn't work for me. But then - THEN - every once in awhile the planets align and the heavens smile down on a recording session, and everything comes together with an exceptional group of musicians combined with the perfect recording perspective (which, for some reason is a rare event for these quartets), and magic happens! And it is a wonderous experience to behold. And there is none better than the magnificent 2005 set from the Pacifica Quartet on Cedille Records (see my review elsewhere on this blog).
And now there's the Escher String Quartet. Their set, on 3 separate BIS SACDs, is, in a nutshell, excellent. Better than most. All 3 discs were recorded in Potton Hall, Suffolk England, but each at different sessions over a period of 13 months. And the series just gets better and better as it progresses.
The first disc, offering #1 & 4 (plus the Quartet in E flat major), was recorded in April 2014. The playing is immediately impressive. But there is no denying these are closely mic'd and upfront (but not aggressive). While providing tremendous impact, the sound is just short of being almost too forward. But I must emphasize "just short" though...it is just acceptably kept at the plane of the speakers without being aggressively thrust out into the room. And it is very clean and clear, with a glorious acoustic providing plenty of ambience and warmth. It is mastered at a higher volume level than usual, though, which necessitated me adjusting the volume down several notches to compensate.
Once adjusted, the sound is very good and the playing is excellent. Make no mistake - with the recording being this closely mic'd and hyper-analytical, there is absolutely NOWHERE for anything less than perfect playing to hide. And there is absolutely nothing here which is less than perfection.
As recorded by BIS, this first disc is not quite as inviting and lovely as my reference recordings from the Pacifica Quartet. It is just a touch more intense. However, the playing is in no way chilly, slightly detached (and slightly aggressive) as another set I didn't like as much - that from the Manderling Quartett on Audite. The Escher's #1 and #4 are what I would describe as "commanding." Despite the recording perspective, these are still enjoyable because the playing itself is not at all "aggressive". It is at all times musically involving, and the performances are gripping.
Turning to the next installment, recorded 5 months later (in September 2014), things get even better. #2 and 3 are bursting with joy and exuberance. And the recording is just a touch more natural. The engineers seem to have made slight adjustments for a slightly more relaxed presentation, which is all gain. The mastered volume level is a couple notches lower and the quartet is now slightly less bold - but even better focused. A more expressive quality emerges to great effect. Rather than demanding one's attention, these readings positively invite one to come listen. They are fully the equal of the incomparable Pacifica's.
The final disc, recorded in May 2015, is the finest of all. #5 in particular is infused with a sweet, freely singing, soaring quality combined with infectious verve, making it very special indeed. I had thought their performances of #2 & 3 were highlights of the entire set until I listened to their #5, which is simply marvelous. The same can be said for #6. In this brilliant performance, there is a maturity and foreboding which seems to foreshadow what's to come (Mendelssohn died a month after its completion). The work blossoms into one of the true masterpieces which marks his life. And the recording is absolutely superb. Truly, this final disc is magnificent.
Tempos in all 6 works are perfectly judged. Allegros are dazzling and spring from the speakers with life. Slow movements never drag, but unfold with a moving, naturally flowing musical expression - which is a hallmark of every string ensemble I cherish. And everywhere there is a sense of freshness and spontaneity, as if in a live performance.
Of the two additional works included here, the Opus 81 Four Pieces for String Quartet (assembled after his death) are especially rewarding, despite being split over 2 discs due to maximum playing time confines.
I think I can summarize this set by stating it sounds the most like Mendelssohn of any I can remember. I kept thinking all through, "this sounds like Mendelssohn at his best." And in my book, that's the highest compliment I can pay the Escher Quartet.
I have several "favorite" string quartets on my list now. The Pacifica and the Dover have consistently topped that list, recently joined by the Attacca. Now the Escher joins the ranks as well. Can I have four favorite groups? When they are all this fabulous, yes, absolutely.