Pacifica String Quartet:
Simin Ganatra, Violin
Sibbi Bernhardsson, Violin
Masumi Per Rostad, Viola
Brandon Vamos, Cello

By Lawrence Budmen

String Quartet in E-Flat Major, Opus 12
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)

Mendelssohn may well be the most underated major composer of the 19th century. During his lifetime he won far greater acclaim as a conductor. Indeed his appearances on the podium were historic. In 1829 he led a performance of Johann Sebastian Bach's "St. Matthew Passion" at the Berlin Singakademie which presaged the rediscovery and critical revaluation of Bach's music - a revival that continues to this day. While conducting in Dusseldorf between 1833 and 1835 he became a leading exponent of Handel's oratorios. His most important work as a conductor was in Leipzig where (between 1835 and 1847) he led the Gewandhaus Orchestra in the posthumous premiere of Schubert's "Great C Major Symphony" (no.9), first performances of the symphonies and orchestral works of Robert Schumann, and the German premieres of scores by the Frenchman Hector Berlioz and the Norwegian Niels Gade (teacher of Edvard Grieg). 

In our own time, Mendelssohn has too often been dismissed as a lightweight. Terms like "facile" and "lacking in depth" have routinely been applied by critics to Mendelssohn's music. Yet what composer (excluding Mozart) produced such a large and consistently distinguished output in a mere 38 years of life? What other 19th century composer had such a seemingly endless supply of inspired melodies? What composer wrote with such engaging vivacity and unabashed romantic lyricism? Too many commentators have mistaken the quicksilver lightness and transparency of Mendelssohn's music for a lack of inspiration. In truth Mendelssohn's scores are marked by immense craftsmanship and formal rigor. How can any open minded listener hear his melodies and regard his music as uninspired? Mendelssohn was a remarkable musician. While in his teens he wrote 12 string symphonies. He would continue to turn out one masterpiece after another. 

Mendelssohn's chamber music scores are among his most striking compositions. They reconcile classical models with romantic passion. The E-flat Major Quartet, Opus 12 is actually the composer's second essay in the string quartet medium. Although the score bears the earlier opus number, the A Minor Quartet, Opus 13 was written two years earlier. Mendelssohn visited England ten times and it was during an extended trip to England, Scotland, and Wales in 1829 that he wrote the E-flat quartet. (On that same trip Mendelssohn found inspiration for his "Scottish" Symphony and "Hebrides" Overture.) Mendelssohn greatly revered Beethoven and that admiration shines through the pages of the E-flat quartet. Shortly after the score's premiere, Mendelssohn wrote to his former teacher Carl Friedrich Zelter: "In your last letter you seemed to be anxious lest, following my predilections for one of the great masters (Beethoven), I might…be led into imitation. Such, however, is certainly not the case….Naturally, nobody can forbid me to enjoy the inheritance left by the great masters nor to continue to work at it, because not everybody has to begin at the beginning. But then it must be continued creation according to one's ability, and not a lifeless repetition of what is already there." 

Each of the quartet's four movements is in a different key - quite uniquely: 1. Adagio ma non troppo; Allegro non tardante - E-flat major; 2. Canzonetta: Allegretto - G Minor; 3.Andante espressivo - B-flat major; and 4. Molto allegro e vivace - C Minor. The slow introduction of the first movement becomes a cyclical reference as Mendelssohn returns to both the key and thematic mood of the opening in the coda of the finale. The allegro section of the first movement is pure Mendelssohn with two passionate, lyrical themes. The Canzonetta (second movement) replaces the scherzo. The movement is distinguished by the delicately etched pizzicato accompaniment and a airy, scintillating middle section that recalls the composer's Overture to "A Midsummer Night's Dream." The Andante espressivo is one long instrumental song - all romantic ardor. (Mendelssohn's set of piano pieces "Songs Without Words" likewise utilize the instrument to "sing" a vocal line.) The Molto allegro e vivace is a stormy, tempest tossed finale. 

While Mendelssohn's "Octet" has long been popular (in both chamber and enlarged string orchestral versions), his quartets were rarely played. (Mendelssohn was thought of, primarily, as an orchestral composer.) In the last two decades his string quartets and other chamber works have assumed their rightful place in the repertoire. Next to the "Octet," the E-flat major string quartet may be Mendelssohn's most frequently performed chamber score.

String Quartet in D Major, Opus 64, No.5 - "The Lark"
Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

Haydn's string quartets represent the pinnacle of this chamber music form. Only Beethoven and, in a very different manner, Bela Bartok would equal or surpass Haydn's achievement. The six quartets of Opus 64 present Haydn at his most witty, inspired and inventive. "The Lark" quartet (no.5 of the opus 64 set) has long been one of the composer's most popular works. Every string quartet has included this work in it repertoire (with the exception of such esoteric avant garde groups as the Kronos and Flux Quartets). 

Between 1787 and 1790 Haydn composed 12 quartets (including the six of opus 64) for Johann Tost. From 1783 until 1788 Tost was principal second violin in Haydn's orchestra at the Esterhazy court. Three of the opus 64 quartets -nos. 3, 6, and 5 "The Lark" - were published in London by John Bland in 1791. The title page indicated that the scores were composed by "Giuseppe Haydn and performed under his direction at Mr. (Johann Peter) Salomon's concert at the Festino Rooms Hanover Square." The renowned musicologist and Mozart and Haydn scholar H. C. Robbins Landon wrote: "Opus 64 (quartets) is perhaps Haydn's greatest single achievement of the period - six flawless masterpieces which…can be compared in unity of purpose, perfection of execution, and profundity only with Opus 20 (quartet series)." In "The Lark" quartet, Haydn demonstrates the absolute mastery of his compositional craft.

The staccato chords of the second violin, viola, and cello at the beginning of the Allegro moderato (first movement) are answered by a soaring, vibrant melody in the first violin which gives the score its name (an allusion to the sound of a lark). Note the double recapitulation at the end of the movement - one of Haydn's many musical innovations. The Adagio cantabile is a simple, eloquent song like theme that continues almost uninterrupted in the first violin. The rousing third movement minuet features a chromatic trio in D minor. That key appears again in the fugal episode of the lively finale. Haydn's capacity to explore and reinvent thematic material is on display par excellence in this masterwork. 

String Quartet in D Minor, Opus 34 Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) 

Unlike most of his contemporaries, Dvorak came from a "peasant" family. His father was a butcher who wanted his son to inherit the business. Nevertheless music was a true calling for Dvorak. He studied with Antonin Liehmann and at the Prague Organ School from 1857 until 1859. He was a skilled viola player and joined the Provisional Theatre Orchestra which Smetana conducted. Dvorak came to the attention of Johannes Brahms when the latter was a judge in a competition the Czech composer had entered. Brahms wrote a letter of introduction to the publisher Simrock who accepted Dvorak's "Moravian Duets" and commissioned the "Slavonic Dances," publishing both in 1878. International success followed. Dvorak's music was particularly well received in England where he would receive several commissions. At age 50 he was invited to become Director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City, where he also taught composition and conducted his works. His brief American period (1892-5) would provide inspiration for several scores, most notably the Ninth Symphony ("From the New World") and the "American" String Quartet. 

Dvorak regarded himself as first and foremost a Czech composer. He particularly admired Smetana (for his Czech nationalism), Wagner (for his harmony and innovative use of leitmotifs), and Brahms (for his piano writing and symphonic mastery). Brahms would become his mentor and friend. At a time when Liszt and Wagner declared that the "symphonic poem" was the way of the future, Dvorak continued to write chamber music, even though it was considered passé by the "modern Germans." After Haydn and Beethoven, Dvorak must be considered the most important composer of string quartets in the mid and late 19th century. Only Brahms would compose works of comparable quality (although he would write only 3 string quartets compared to Dvorak's 14 works in this genre). 

The D Minor Quartet was composed in 1877 and revised in 1879. The period of this score's development and revision spans the composer's Slavonic period, when the "Moravian Duets," "Slavonic Dances," and "Slavonic Rhapsodies" would bring him success outside his country's borders. His works from this era are strongly influenced by Czech folk elements - furiants, dumkas, and polkas. In the opus 34 (D Minor) quartet, the second movement is a strongly characterized polka. The opening and closing Allegro movements are marked by references to Czech dance and folk rhythms. In the midst of this display of folk inspired instrumental mastery, the beautiful Adagio attests to Dvorak's lyrical impulses. The entire quartet summarizes Dvorak's synthesis of nationalist elements with the Austro-German musical tradition. 

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