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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-47)
Complete String Quartets Vol. 4
Octet in E flat major, Op. 20
String Quartet in E flat major (1823)
Leipziger Streichquartett
Recorded: Andreaskirche, Berlin, 2-4 December, 2002

Mendelssohn composed his impressive Octet in E Flat major, Op. 20 virtually out of the blue with no precedents or models to follow. Compositions for octet were extremely rare especially those for strings only. Spohr had recently composed a work for double string quartet which was not the same as an eight-part octet. Furthermore Schubert and Beethoven had written octets for strings and winds. It is possible that Mendelssohn had heard the Schubert Octet which was first performed in 1824.

Music writer William Altmann aptly described the spirit of the Mendelssohn Octet, "The sea of sound that rages through the Octet is very powerful, achieving indeed quite an orchestral tone at times, though there is no lack of delicate passages." For me it is a work of pure genius and it is amazing that Mendelssohn was only sixteen when he wrote the work. Mendelssohn left the instructions that, "This Octet must be played by all the instruments in symphonic orchestra style… Pianos and Fortes must be strictly observed and more strongly emphasised than is used to in pieces of this character."

The way the Leipziger Streichquartett alternate between the orchestral aspect that Mendelssohn required and that of a violin concerto is especially well done. The second movement Andante does tend to get slightly bogged-down in this interpretation as the players seem to run out of stream. The famous Scherzo is a celebrated Mendelssohn creation which has been described as a masterpiece in many quarters. The players successfully convey a believable atmosphere evocative of fairyland and ghostly fantasy although I would have preferred more spring in the players’ step. The concluding Presto is remarkably successfully done by the players who seem to perform with a newly found vigour and with enviable tone and rhythm.

My particular favourite version of the Octet is the emotionally charged reading from The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center on Delos DE 3266. I especially enjoyed the ardent and exciting reading from the Lincoln Center players. It provides a remarkable contrast between the required tension and tranquillity, combined with realistic sound quality.

Mendelssohn wrote the String Quartet in E flat major in 1823 when he was only fourteen. Although published posthumously the work has been severely neglected over the years. I would not disagree with descriptions of the quartet as being a ‘student exercise’ with the treatment of the instrumentation restricted. However the work certainly has a special charm and artistry which the Leipziger Streichquartett relish. Their playing is delightful, always alert and sensitive. They offer a fine performance.

I am familiar with a version of the 1823 String Quartet in E flat major by the Aurora String Quartet on Naxos 8.550862. The Aurora give an enjoyable performance but for me lack the delicacy and sensitivity that the Leipziger Streichquartett provide.

The annotation in this MDG Gold release is interesting and detailed yet a touch too technical at times. Top marks for the sound quality which is well balanced and extremely clear.

A fine release from MDG Gold. Beautifully recorded performances that should provide much enjoyment.

Michael Cookson

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