Picks and Pans Review: Mendelssohn: the String Quartets

updated 04/04/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/04/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

The Melos Quartet

In one of the best releases of the season, Mendelssohn's eight quartets are presented in one box for the first time. Complete or partial recorded cycles are commonplace for the quartets of composers from Haydn to Bartók, but for much of this century Mendelssohn has been an artist Rodney Dangerfield could identify with. Too facile, too pleasing, too much talent too superficially applied—that was the rap on this wealthy banker's son from Hamburg, who as a child played Bach fugues to the delight of Goethe, later studied philosophy with Hegel and became a friend of Schumann and Chopin. Some of Mendelssohn's music has remained respected, such as the Octet, the Violin Concerto and also the Midsummer Night's Dream music Woody Allen used last year in his A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy. Now, with its sumptuous tone and verve, the West German Melos Quartet makes some key points about the quartets. Not merely imitating the classical Viennese style evident in Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, Mendelssohn employed classicism to produce a unique beauty that could rise to surprising heights of intricacy, as in the finale of the Op. 13 quartet. His last quartet rebuts the charge of shallowness. Mendelssohn wrote it in his 38th, and last, year—1847—after the death of his beloved sister Fanny left him "experiencing the greatest emptiness and barrenness in my mind and heart." He reached into that void and produced the Op. 80 quartet, a full-textured, tempestuous voyage of the heart.

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