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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Octet in E flat, Op.20 [31:45]
CÚsar FRANCK (1822-1890)
Piano Quintet in F minor [35:52]
Medici String Quartet
Alberni String Quartet
John Bingham (piano)
rec. 1988, All Saints’ Church, Petersham, UK; Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, UK
NIMBUS NI7108 [67:37]

This is an exceptional performance of the Mendelssohn Octet, sparkling in its energy, buoyant in its rhythmic incisiveness and superbly shaped by two of the premier British string quartets of the 1980s playing in perfect artistic partnership. There is a real edge to this playing, and the raw vitality of it still has considerable impact over 30 years after the recording was first released. Indeed, apart from the recording’s strong bias towards the first violin, this fine recording is more than a match for anything that has come along since. Perhaps a smoother, more polished performance comes from the Academy of St Martin in the Fields on Chandos, but as a performance which captures the youthful enthusiasm of Mendelssohn’s incredible creativity and informs the whole work with an infectious joyfulness this is right at the top of any list of preferred versions. It is certainly one of the very few around which manages to bring a true sense of “con fuoco” to the first movement, which so often is delivered a little too manicured to be truly fiery. The brittle, close-to-the-bridge playing in the scherzo gives it a most endearing air of playful, childish banter.

Originally coupled with works for string octet by Shostakovich, this new release pairs it with the Piano Quintet of CÚsar Franck in a recording made a few months before the Mendelssohn in 1988 with the pianist John Bingham. At first sight, this might seem a slightly odd pairing, with the refined and open-spirited character of the Mendelssohn coming up against the murky mature passions of Franck in a clash of stylistic worlds which reflects as much as anything the turbulent 60 years of European history which separated the composition of these two works. And repeated listenings do nothing to diminish that initial sense that these two works make completely incompatible bed-fellows, the harmonic restraint and classical order of Mendelssohn hardly ever finding common ground with the chromatic freedom and late-romantic excesses of Franck.

Sadly, the recording of the Franck has none of the immediacy of the Mendelssohn, and it certainly is to the great disadvantage of the performance that the piano of John Bingham is so far recessed; indeed you might imagine that the string quartet and piano were placed in different rooms for the recording. Yet the quality of the performance transcends this problem, and what burns through is a strong sense of passion and dramatic poise. Where the Mendelssohn had impetuous enthusiasm, this has spaciously-considered intensity, the surging waves of turbulent emotion restlessly pulsating throughout the first movement frequently working themselves up to a fever pitch of passion, the deeply-felt sadness of the second movement heart-wrenchingly revealed above Bingham’s beautifully poised accompaniment, and the nervous, agitated con fuoco finale blazing with searing intensity. We may end as we began with musical fire, but while Mendelssohn’s was warming and comforting, Franck’s has an almost destructive, all-consuming force. What a pity such an inspired performance was not preserved in better sound.
 
Marc Rochester



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