DOUBLE PLAY / A well measured grief: Stephen Johnson and Edward Seckerson on a romantic view of Mendelssohn and the dark side of Sibelius

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MENDELSSOHN: String Quartets

Cherubini Quartet

(EMI 754514-2: three CDs)

AFTER years of being taken for granted, Mendelssohn seems to be a topic for discussion again. We've had Kurt Masur's 'back- to-Bach' Elias, and Nikolaus Harnoncourt's hard-edged, muscular Third Symphony. Now here is a young German quartet with another new perspective: Mendelssohn the young German Romantic, the kind of composer who, like Schumann, could base an instrumental work on a highly personal 'love' programme and fill it full of cryptic clues - references to songs, even to his own poetry.

The work in question is the A minor quartet, Op 13, an astonishingly accomplished and deeply felt piece for an 18-year- old, I admit. But I wonder if the Cherubini don't push their case a bit too far. Not all the music bears this extra emotional weight comfortably - especially not the less radical, cosier Op 44/1 and Op 44/3 quartets. The final masterpiece, the F minor, does come over well, though, especially in the highly personal slow movement - violin phrases almost drip with feeling.

It's encouraging to hear Mendelssohn done with such rounded commitment - not prettified or patronised but treated as an imaginative musician with real emotions - and in such warmly sympathetic recordings. You can try too hard, though. SJ

WOULD Mendelssohn have been a different, perhaps greater composer had life been less comfortable for him? Hard to say. No question that the most poignant, the most painfully honest music on these discs comes with the Adagio from his quartet in F minor, Op 80, written in the last year of his life upon the death of his beloved sister Fanny. It sits like an oasis of tranquillity, a safe haven amid some of the most fractious music he ever wrote.

It's real, it's immediate. The composer of this music will never be the same again. So what of an earlier masterpiece like the A minor quartet? The genuine article, or a supremely skilled dramatisation? This is Mendelssohn the incurable Romantic with a head full of Beethoven. Longing is a grave introduction, determination is fugal, love requited comes as a revelation in solo violin - an eminently sweet violin in Christoph Poppen, leader of this vital young German quartet.

They seem to me to give us the whole Mendelssohn: the Beethovenian gravity and rigour of his most confrontational music, the essential zing and swing (and warmth) of his sunniest tunes, always caught on the 'wings of song', to say nothing of those fleet-footed sprites of scherzos. There's plenty of good music here, not all of it on the level of the aforementioned quartets but borne always on the momentum of its own invention. How effortless it all was. Perhaps we'd not have had Mendelssohn any other way. ES

SIBELIUS: Symphony No 2.

Swan of Tuonela. Valse triste.

Andante festivo Oslo Philharmonic / Mariss Jansons

(EMI CDC 754804-2)

THE thinking behind the programming isn't hard to divine. Take Sibelius's most popular symphony and two of his most popular short orchestral works, give them to a Scandinavian orchestra and a much-in-demand conductor, and you have a very saleable disc - and possibly a critical success too.

There are good things here. Jansons brings his characteristic flair for the intense long phrase to parts of the first movement, and to the finale's famous big tune. He avoids histrionics, and relates tempo to tempo with a genuine feeling for Sibelius's organic thinking. Somehow, though, the results are surprisingly under-characterised. Woodwind often seems reticent, and the colours (woodwind timbres are so important in Sibelius) can be disappointingly thin. The brass too could be more sonorous especially towards the bass (the last thing this symphony needs is a reserved tuba).

I was surprised too to find - in these days of meticulous digital editing - a strange wobble in the brass ensemble at the very height of the finale's apotheosis; it might have been excusable elsewhere but there, of all places. . . For me it was the little- known Andante festivo for strings that made the strongest impression - really luminous string sound, and highly charged, well- cut phrases. But one can hardly recommend the disc for that alone. SJ

IT should be good - and it is. Here's an orchestra playing like true believers, resonance and pride in every page. A lone trumpet surveying the second movement's bleak terrain will stay with you just as surely as the triumphant paean of the finale. Jansons's great strength is, as ever, his grasp of superstructure and balance: there's an urgent sense here of the first movement finding form out of fragmentation.

Less commanding are the elemental aspects, the implacable brass upheavals (tuba well caught) and yawning silences of the second movement, the mountainous wave-like ostinato sequence of the finale. Jansons's excitement is a controlled excitement; baser instincts are kept well in check. In the final ascent to the coda, his layering of texture brings its own rewards - an uplift in intensity, for instance, when the windswept upper woodwinds make their entrance. I only wish he'd let go more, allow his impeccable manners to slip just occasionally.

Excellent fillers, the dark side of this particular Sibelius coin. Jansons's Swan glides over the lake of death, the more unsettling for its perfect poise (the Oslo cor anglais is something special). The darkling Valse triste is answered by a prayer: Andante festivo. If the premature victory at the close of the symphony represents Sibelius the idealist, enter now Sibelius the realist. ES

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