Congenial Mendelssohn; lovely sound; and an odd layout

Chandos is one of those labels I admire in part because they manage to squeeze more music onto a disc than almost any other. (BIS and sometimes Pentatone are also really good at it, and other labels, such as Naxos, are catching on as well.) So when surveying this cycle of Mendelssohn’s String Quartets (and an additional disc of the Quintets), I am perplexed. 

The 6 Quartets are divided into two releases – of two CDs each. All of the music would easily fit onto just three, as every other label in history has accomplished, but Chandos inexplicably spreads them out over 4. Then, a 5th disc was produced (last) with the two String Quintets. What a great idea it would have been to release a 4-disc box of the 6 Quartets plus the 2 Quintets. But instead, we have 2 two-fers (with musical content presented in no apparent order) and an additional single.

Now, I could have understood all this if doing so had some logic to it, such as presenting the Quartets in chronological order, or if it allowed for additional music to be included. But no. They didn’t even manage to do that. So let’s take a closer look at what we have here.

Let me first emphasize that these are all standard stereo CDs – not multi-channel SACDs.

Volume 1 (2018)
Disc One has Quartet #1 and #6 coupled. Why? (total playing time 52 minutes)
Disc Two – just Quartet #5 (total playing time 34’33). 

Volume 2 (2021)
Disc One – Quartets #2 & 3 (playing time 60’54)
Disc Two – Quartet #4 (playing time just 28 minutes)

A single disc (2022) gives us the two Quintets (playing time 61’31)

I can’t come up with any reason why someone at Chandos would conceive the brilliant idea to break up these recordings in this manner. And given that the doubles are priced essentially as singles, I can’t imagine this being economically practical to produce either. But whatever, ultimately it’s not really that important; it’s just annoying.

So let’s get to what matters most – the music.

Requiring some extra remote control action and up-and-down activity on my part, I listened to these Quartets in chronological order. And in a nutshell, this is congenial Mendelssohn, warmly expressive and gracious. It reminds me very much of the sweetly singing set from the Pacifica Quartet (3 CDs, Cedille Records, 2005). Both sets are superbly played and very well recorded.

The Doric play with a unified lightness of articulation and infusion of musical phrasing, with a natural dynamic range. They do not demonstrate the dramatic invigoration and powerful presence of the superlative Escher Quartet on their magnificent set for BIS (3 SACDs, 2015-16), which reigns supreme in every way. That simply is not the Doric’s way with Mendelssohn. They opt for a simpler, more pleasant approach, in a rather laid-back way – less commanding and less demanding of one’s attention. Again, it’s very similar to the wonderful Pacifica Quartet. And Chandos matches them beautifully with warm, yet detailed recording, within a natural acoustic.

Where I find the Doric coming up just short of the very best is in Allegro vivace movements, which are not quite vivace enough and a bit lacking in sheer jubilance and spontaneity. Their playing continues to smile, and dynamics are excellent, but rarely does it express outright joy. The Pacifica Quartet are all smiles too, but they also are joyous when called for. And the Escher are the most jubilant of all.

After satisfactory and uneventful readings of the 1st and 2nd Quartets from the Doric, the outer movements of the 3rd left me longing for more incisive articulation and a more soaring lift to the lines. I’m not a string player, but it sounds too much “on the string”, where I wanted more bow separating the notes, providing them lift – more detache. But far be it from me to be critical, this is merely a matter of taste. Others may prefer the more earthbound lyricism of their playing.

I have more serious concerns with the 4th. In the opening movement, the appassionato marking is curiously interpreted. The first violin makes an awkward, sickly-sounding downward portamento at the end of the opening phrase (which didn’t sound at all passionate). And the section which immediately follows it scrambles off like a jet, again distinctly lacking in passion. The somewhat queasy, ill-advised violin portamento recurs intermittently here and there, which just doesn’t sound “appassionato” to me. The Scherzo, oddly, turns a bit aggressive with some gruff playing quite out of character from everything surrounding it. And despite a nicely executed Finale, as a whole, the piece just doesn’t quite “gel” with a unified vision.

If this reading of the 4th didn’t exactly do it for me, the 5th is a different matter. This is certainly one of the highlights of the entire set, where lightness of touch is matched with more articulate bowing in a spirited and sparkling reading, illuminating one of Mendelssohn’s most delightful creations. The Adagio is beautifully singing, not in the slightest burdened with heaviness, and the finale is brilliantly con fuoco without turning at all aggressive. Other than a cringe-worthy moment in the opening Allegro vivace (at the 8’00 mark), where a brief, exposed blush of ecstasy from the 1st violin did not come off terribly well, the reading of this Quartet is very enjoyable.

The final Quartet’s outer movements are very well done, but the inner movements are uncomfortably slow. I also heard a touch of thinness to string tone I hadn’t noticed anywhere else in the set. All said, this one is a mixed bag.

Throughout all six, Andantes are flowing with a marvelous forward momentum and sweetly singing lines, and slow movements in general are kept moving without the slightest heaviness or excessive weight. So, all in all, tempo relationships are expertly managed and the lightness of style suitably appropriate for Mendelssohn. In this regard, I can hardly fault the Doric in any way.

Taken as a whole though, as good as the Doric are, they can’t match the Escher for musical involvement, inspired insight and sheer invigoration. But to be fair, I have yet to hear a group which can! The Pacifica are certainly excellent too in these masterpieces (in a different way), and the Doric, with the exceptions noted, come close to matching their achievement. 

It is worth noting that both the Escher and the Pacifica give us substantially more music on their 3-disc sets than the Doric do on their 4. In addition to the main works, we get the early Quartet in E-flat Major (1823) plus the “Four Pieces for String Quartet” (Opus 81) – nearly 50 extra minutes of very worthwhile music. 

Finally, the most recent CD containing the two Quintets is arguably the best of all – thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish. The quartet is joined by violist Timothy Ridout, who seems to have brought a spark of energy to the group. Their lightness of touch remains, but supplemented with the extra bit of richness from the 2nd viola makes for very winning accounts of both works, replete with positively glowing sound from Chandos. Rarely have these Quintets sounded so lovely as played here – remaining firmly in the Mendelssohn style and steering clear of Brahms. Very nicely done.

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