Olympic Mendelssohn, No Silver Spoon

United StatesUnited States Shostakovich, Beethoven, and Mendelssohn: Ilana Setapen and Stefan Hersh (violins); Alan Iglitzin (viola); Bronwyn Banerdt (cello); Olympic Music Festival, Quilcene, WA, 28.7.2012 (BJ)

Mendelssohn’s reputation has sometimes suffered, among critics if not with the public, by comparison with that of such composers as Beethoven. Whereas we think of the latter as habitually storming the heavens, the stuff of Mendelssohn’s music is acknowledged to be masterly perhaps, but the field of the mastery is assumed to be the relatively unambitious one of charm.

That is the received wisdom. Like most bits of received wisdom, it is partly true. But like most bits of received wisdom again, it can be valuably amplified in the light of fresh scrutiny. Certainly the quartet that ended this program goes far to revise the picture—and if anyone present was attending a concert for the first time, he or she could well have been forgiven for going home with the impression that Mendelssohn was a greater composer than Beethoven.

In a letter written just after he had received the news of his beloved sister Fanny’s untimely death in May 1847, Mendelssohn exclaimed: “I shall not know what to write except—God help us, God help us!” His own death was to follow less than six months later. The F-minor Quartet was written during that period. Its unremitting concentration and feverishly intense seriousness offer a musical counterpart to his distracted grief. “The mass of men,” Thoreau said, “lead lives of quiet desperation.” Mendelssohn is popularly believed to have been born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth. Yet desperation is the state from which the first movement seems hell-bent to escape, and it was a tone brilliantly realized in this performance from the very first notes, with their fp accents thrust at us with a vividness that was almost percussive in effect.

Such music surely puts any thoughts of a silver spoon far out of mind. There is no let-up in intensity in the movements that follow, and there was no let up in the performance either. Before intermission, I had thought cellist Bronwyn Banerdt a touch too reticent in the trio of Beethoven’s F-major Quartet, Op. 18, No. 1, which really needed to sound a bit more galumphing—but her strength of tone and expression in Mendelssohn showed that any such reticence must have been the result of artistic choice. Especially impressive was the way she and her colleagues, with Ilana Setapen spinning a beautifully seamless first-violin line, dug into the Adagio third movement, which substitutes a searching emotional tone for the easy-going charm that had occasionally injected a note of sentimentality into some of Mendelssohn’s slow movements.

The program had opened with Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 1. The least ambitious of his 15 essays in the genre, it’s a pleasant enough work, but it provided no hint of the depths of expression that were later to be plumbed. Then came a well-turned performance of the Beethoven, about which, however, the players—or at least Alan Iglitzin—and I are clearly in disagreement. His introductory remarks included a reference to the sublimity of this early work’s slow movement. But personally I find that movement self-conscious rather than sublime in its rather voulu intensity: methinks the performance direction “Adagio affettuoso ed appassionato” doth protest too much; and I am encouraged in this view by Joseph Kerman who, in his masterly study, The Beethoven Quartets, justly salutes the movement’s ambition and arduousness, but puts an unerring finger on the whiff of sentimentality that undermines those qualities.

Still and all, the performers gave it their full commitment. But it was with the Mendelssohn, after intermission, that their playing really caught fire, bringing an uncommonly interesting program to an enthralling close.

Bernard Jacobson