With their complete Beethoven
, Bartók, and Shostakovich quartet cycles as prizewinning feathers in their caps, the members of the Emerson String Quartet
turn to the work of Felix Mendelssohn on their latest integral set. While Mendelssohn's chamber music may not be as familiar as his orchestral work, the seven quartets, which span his creative life, encapsulate nicely the composer's blend of Romantic expression with Classical form, as well as his frequent turn to Baroque fugal technique. From the two early Quartets Opp. 12 and 13 through the three Quartets Op. 44 and finally the remarkable F Minor Quartet Op. 80 -- composed in response to the premature death of Mendelssohn's sister -- the Emersons reveal this underappreciated repertoire with playing of great precision, clarity, and vigor. Moving beyond the six numbered quartets, the completer-than-complete set also includes the student-period E-flat Quartet, as well as several single-movement compositions -- from an early fugue to the late Theme and Variations and A Minor Scherzo, possibly intended as portions of an eighth quartet, had Mendelssohn lived to complete it. What really sets this collection apart, however, is the addition on a bonus disc of the E-flat Octet, written when Mendelssohn was only 16 and one of chamber music's true treasures. Using the magic of multi-track recording, the four musicians perform all eight parts, two per player, with a separate instrument devoted to each line in the score, so as to extend the illusion of eight actual players. It's a virtuoso technical feat not only for the Emersons but also for producer Da-Hong Seetoo, who manages to keep track of all the threads and assemble a thoroughly convincing performance. You can watch it all come together on a documentary included on a CD-ROM portion of the fourth disc, while musicologist R. Larry Todd's excellent booklet essay affords a lucid historical and stylistic perspective on this delightful body of music.