Heard right after the vibrant D major Quartet, Op. 44, No. 1, Felix Mendelssohn's String Quartet No. 4 in E minor, Op. 44, No. 2 (which was actually composed many months before Op. 44, No. 1, but who's counting?), seems wonderfully tense and urgent. It was a success when Ferdinand David and his quartet premiered it on October 28, 1837, four months after Mendelssohn finished it but two years still before it was published, and its popularity with string players student, amateur, and professional is probably at this point second to none other of Mendelssohn's six quartets -- and justly so, though picking the best apple from a lot as fine as the three Opus 44 pieces is not a happy task!
The E minor Quartet, is, like its two Op. 44 companions, in four movements. Few composers would have been able to blend vagary with affirmed, solid tunefulness as disarmingly, as seamlessly as Mendelssohn managed at the start of the opening Allegro assai appassionato movement -- indeed, one hardly stops to think that the quiet, misty syncopations of the second violin and viola should probably want nothing whatever to do with the first violin's firm-spined, arch-shaped thought. Concord among the four instruments is achieved only with the arrival of cascades of eighths and sixteenths and the subsequent dissolution of the same into a pianissimo, heartwarming, parallel sixth-filled second subject in G major. When all is nearly said and done at the end of the movement, this second tune makes a bid to close the movement, but is overruled by the first subject and some wonderful imitative diminutions thereof.
Whereas the second movement of Op. 44, No. 1 was a minuet, here it is a true scherzo -- though not, admittedly, of the hot-headed type that Beethoven made famous; rather, of the quietly shimmering type that Mendelssohn loved. The Andante third movement might be thought of as a song without words in G major, melody offered to the first violin (and, for a little while during the middle of the piece, the cello) as the inner voices spin tenderly around each other.
The fourth and final movement is marked Presto agitato; with the twinkle of an eye and a twitch of his pen, Mendelssohn moves into and out of shards of music that sound like leftovers from the scherzo, proving that the formulae of sonata allegro form can still be used to make magic.