MUSIC / Far from the drawing-room: Anthony Payne hears the Carmina Quartet and the Nash Ensemble play Mendelssohn at the Wigmore Hall
Friday 14 January 1994
In a programme to which the Nash Ensemble made only a brief contribution (although a brilliant one with the Concertstuck for clarinet, basset and piano), we also heard the Carmina Quartet, the soprano Juliane Banse and the fortepianist Melvyn Tan. Every item attested to Mendelssohn's creative stature, and after such items as the String Quartets in A minor and F minor, Songs without Words, and a wider selection of songs, it came as a shock to recall that not so long ago we were encouraged to view Mendelssohn as smart but lacking depth.
Typically it was the adolescent mastery and command of a fantastic scherzando style which were made the most of, and with the exception of obvious masterpieces like the Scottish and Italian symphonies, Fingal's Cave and the Violin Concerto, there seemed a reluctance to accept the emotional and intellectual gravity of the mature master.
The six mature string quartets - mature, even though two were composed by the time Mendelssohn was 18 - reveal the truth. They spanned his life's work, and all are profoundly searching, whether the tone is light or dark. The Carmina Quartet gave us the first movement of the early Quartet in A minor and the complete F minor, the composer's last extended masterpiece, written after the traumatic death of his sister.
Both works show the broadening and deepening influence of Beethoven, something the emotional grain and commitment of the players suggested. There was nothing of the mechanistically well-drilled: this was true chamber music playing, where four equals conversed together without being obsessed with the need for vertical accuracy. Thus encouraged, we listened in a more linear way, and were drawn into an intense dialectic.
Mendelssohn's songs and piano pieces have been even more casually received over the years, and, again, it was a joy to hear Juliane Banse's lovely singing of an extensive group of songs and Melvyn Tan's buoyant treatment of the Songs without Words. If rarely attempting the bold revelations of Brahms's or Schumann's miniatures, all these pieces avoid the drawing-room cosiness of which Mendelssohn has so often been accused, achieving a touchingly individual poetry.
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