The second half of our autumn recital programme for this year begins with the Adagio from Barber’s String Quartet in B Minor. Not, you will note, Barber’s Adagio for Strings, which if anything refers to the later re-orchestration of the movement for string orchestra; substantially similar to the original quartet version no doubt, but different in important respects (for example in the addition of double basses). Because of the reflective, intimate character of the work, it should be ideally suited to a recital setting, and will hopefully come as something of a pleasant surprise to those audience members familiar only with the more well-known orchestral rendering, which can certainly produce an awesome sound but arguably loses something of its delicate tragedy in its translation to the bigger stage.
Then comes the final act of the drama, Mendelssohn’s First Quartet, a hidden gem of the quartet repertoire. Any fears that Mendelssohn might have been slow to settle into quartet writing are allayed at the first hearing of this work of fabulous maturity. Most impressive is the sense of narrative which permeates the work. It opens with a gentle, if harmonically unsettled, slow introduction, which then gives way to joyous, pulsating allegro full of the youthful vigour we can hope the twenty-year old Mendelssohn still felt. However just as the work appears to be settling into a repeat of the exposition a bleak, haunting C Minor subject intercedes on second violin and viola. This trick of the abortive exposition, used in the first movement of the Octet (with which this work shares many common factors, not least a home key of E Flat with a G Minor scherzo), is particularly effective here, allowing Mendelssohn to introduce his cyclic melody. This theme never rises above piano in dynamic, making it a constant menace to the peace of the home key, latent but never resolved (in this sense it resembles, and shares a key with, the “fate-knocking-at-the-door” motif of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony). The second movement scherzo also occupies mysterious territory, although it is fundamentally wry and playful, an impish sprite of a movement which could so easily have sprung from Mendelssohn’s incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and whose mood is lifted by a scurrying G Major trio. There then ensues a delightful slow movement, though again not without its moments of doubt and tumult, followed by a tempestuous finale in C Minor, in which the suppressed fury prefigured in the opening movement is vented with devastating effect. The conclusion of the first movement is then reprised, seemingly at rest but with the unnerving return of the C Minor subject suggesting that the dark clouds can never be truly chased away.
Mendelssohn’s first quartet is a work of serious and sophisticated ideas, suggesting a wisdom far beyond the relatively tender years of its creator. However it is also a work of memorable melodic material, expertly developed, and as such is well worth a listen at our forthcoming performances. We hope you can attend.