The Merel Quartet Plays Mendelssohn

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MENDELSSOHN: String Quartet No. 1. Octet for Strings* / Merel String Qrt + *Castalian String Qrt / Solo Musica SM293

Here is yet another new CD of old classical music. I can only presume that the reasons these recordings keep coming out in bushel-basketsful is because this is what hipster and millennial classical “aficionados” want to buy. As it turns out, these are fairly good performances, but I’m using this as an illustration of my perennial question, “Why bother unless you really have something different to day about the music?”

The Merel String Quartet plays with a good feel for the musical line and a certain amount of energy, but alas, they subscribe to the Religion of Straight Tone. For this reason I prefer the recordings by the Pacifica Quartet, but within their own preset limitations, the Merel Quartet plays well with particular care taken of the dynamics. Their collective incisiveness in the fast movements, particularly the last one, is simply delightful.

Much to my surprise, however, the performance of the famed Octet by the combined forces of the Merel and Castilian String Quartets is much better despite (not because of) the use of straight tone. I am not ready to cast my recording of this work by the wonderful octet assembled by the late Jascha Heifetz around 1967, a group that included (are you ready for this?) Israel Baker as second violinist, William Primrose and Virginia Majewski as violists, and Gregor Piatagorsky as first cellist. Very often, such all-star ensembles don’t work well together as a unit, but this one does, to great effect. Nonetheless, this performance is not that far behind in musicality and energy, and yes, that did take me back a little after hearing the quartet.

For this I must credit the “second” quartet here, the Castalian. Founded in 2011, this still-young group consists of first violinist Sini Simonen, second violinist Daniel Roberts, violist Charlotte Bonneton and cellist Christopher Graves, and they are something special. In the second movement of the Octet, I heard a bit less energy and feeling than I would have liked, and I attribute this to the reticence of the Merel Quartet which, after all, is the “head” group on this CD. The finale, however, is quite good.

So there you are; and now you know why I back off from reviewing the umpteenth new recording of old material. Believe it or not, there were outstanding musicians in the past and they did know what they were doing!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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