Good, but not the best
P. SIMPSON | North Yorkshire, United Kingdom | 08/19/2003
(3 out of 5 stars)
"I enjoyed this, as music, performance and recording, without being bowled over by it.The first quintet is an early work and the second a quite late one. They are both striking works, full of contrasting moods. The first is the more lyrical of the two, with a "typical" Mendelssohnian scherzo and a very contrapuntal finale. Its debt to dear old Ludwig is obvious. The second quintet is starker and more dramatic and marks the "late" Mendelssohn's return to the emotional intensity of his younger works, certainly compared to the relative calm of other late chamber and piano works. The key words in all this are lyrical, contrasting and dramatic. The performances catch some of each of these qualities but not enough. The MSQ itself is sure in ensemble and phrasing, with some very well judged tempi (try the slow movement of the first quintet, which seems especially "right"). They are as accomplished as you'd expect from a Juilliard trained ensemble boasting Robert Mann as a guest. However, as in many Juilliard Quartet recordings, the performance is very up-front. It lacks the subtlety, variation, depth and warmth that would make it first rank. There's also far too much special pleading about what is a fairly obvious debt to Beethoven. We already know that Mendelssohn could be a powerful, romantic composer rather than just the amiable Victorian gentleman he used to be seen as. We know he was under Beethoven's spell as a young man. However, he was a more complex romantic than the MSQ give him credit for. Their performance is all about the power of the writing and not at all about its beauty and subtelty. For too much of the time, you get tempestuousness without relief. True drama requires contrast, some tragedy, some comedy, some pathos, some joy. There is insufficient contrast here to give us any more than a one-dimensional Mendelssohn. You only need to listen to the Raphael Ensemble's marvellous recording of these two pieces on Hyperion to instantly hear "more" of Mendelssohn. And Hyperion's recording matches that performance with warmth, depth and an even more natural tone than the BIS.Not that the BIS recording is poor, - far from it. The sound is, in fact, very, very good in many respects, typical BIS. The stereo soundstage is very natural, - the instruments are presented as in live performance, as a semi-circle and the recording spreads them enough to hear all the interplay but not so far apart that it feels too "big" for a domestic listening room. It's really well judged in that regard. Its also a very clean and quiet recording, - microphones very well positioned - not too close, not too far away. As a recording its well attuned to the MSQ's performance, - terrific but monochromatic. Which influences the other the most, - the in your face performance or the expert but dry recording, is a chicken and egg question i can't answer. So, its not a failure, and, as I said earlier, it is enjoyable, and I will listen again, but it can't be recommended ahead of the best available recording of these works which is definitely the Raphael/Hyperion."
Exemplary Performances, Fantastic DSD-mastered Sound
Krisjan | Chicago Suburbs | 03/28/2010
(5 out of 5 stars)
"If you don't have this SACD, ORDER IT IMMEDIATELY! It is the epitome of masterly compositions, vibrant playing and extraordinary sound. Mendelssohn wrote two string quintets (standard string quartet plus viola) separated by nearly 20 years. The first, in A, Op.18, (sequenced as the second work on the disc) was written when he was 17 years old but already reaching his prime as a composer. Influences from Mozart are apparent though Mendelssohn's mature voice is evident throughout the work. The dynamic swells in the first movement are well executed by the players and the ensemble unanimity is a marvel to behold. The second movement (marked Inermezzo: Andante Sostenuto) contains some wistful tunes that flirt with a minor key; just a little bit of Sturm und Drang to balance the upbeat movements on either side of it. The scampering scherzo and playful allegro vivace finish out this wonderful quintet.
The second quintet in B-flat, Op.87 was written near the end of Mendelssohn's brief life at his full maturity. It is at times joyful and dramatic (first movement Allegro Vivace) and somber and intense (the probing Adagio e Lento third movement). The performance is sublime. I don't have any other recordings from the Mendelssohn String Quartet. On the evidence of this excellent recording, I wonder why? Whatever the case may be, this recording is a must-have.
The quartet is joined in these performances (on second viola) by the renowned violinist Robert Mann, the long-time (51 years!) principal violinist of the Julliard String Quartet. Mann was in his 80th year when these were recorded and his playing is remarkable (most evident in the first quintet's first movement where there is some exposed writing for the second viola). Amazing!
The recorded sound is truly outstanding. This is one of BIS's (rare) DSD masters (says so right in the booklet) and indeed it sounds like it. DSD does very good things with violin upper harmonics and it is clearly evident here. The sound of the violins above the stave is perfect - it has the natural "bite" without sounding in any way harsh or strident. Very natural, very beautiful and NO listener fatigue (a frequent problem with 16/44 pcm). The recording venue was a Swedish church and balance engineer Hans Kipfer has gotten the blend of direct and church acoustic down perfectly. The hall resonance never obscures any of the ensemble details in the rather close-up perspective. As an added bonus, no sniffing and huffing is audible from the players. Praga could take a lesson in chamber music recording from this one. Bravo, BIS, Bravo! Highly Recommended. A rather rare 5/5 recording for me."