I wrote several weeks back that when away with Julie we listened, while relaxing in our hotel room on a rainy afternoon, to Radio 3, and I found myself quite taken with a broadcast of Mendelssohn’s Octet for strings Op.20, which seemed the perfect accompaniment to the afternoon in particular. I made a mental note to find a copy later, which I did, but recent discoveries with early English composition have meant that I have not played the disc until today. Mendelssohn is another of those names that a few years back I would never have dreamt I would be listening to, but researching his composition a little he fits nicely alongside Schubert and Beethoven in that he contributed to the chamber music of the great romantic period quite a bit. The chamber works of the late eighteenth, early nineteenth century are fast becoming some of my favourite music. The Medelssohn octet is accompanied on the Decca release I have bought by a string quintet by the Italian composer Luigi Boccherini, who I had never heard anything from before. The music is performed by assorted members of the Academy of St. Martin in the fields for a recording that I think was originally made in 1968, though the liner notes are far from clear. the music has been remastered however and sounds very clear and sharp.
The Mendelssohn is written for what are effectively two traditional string quartets, though apparently they are not treated that way in the score. Although there are eight musicians here rather than the usual four the music does not sound overly more complex than a quartet might be. Instead the music sounds thicker and richer, with instruments rarely sounding alone, making the music feel halfway between a quartet and a symphony, but without the reliance on any one leading voice as a concerto might. Its stirring stuff, divided up into four movements, a sprightly Allegro, a rich, romantic Andante, a bouncy Scherzo and a fast, intricate Presto. When the music really hits its stride and blossoms into its energetic crescendoes it really grabs you, forcing you to turn up the volume and let it pull you along. Cooking dinner while this played earlier turned into a dramatic and somewhat amusing affair. Fortunately no one else was around to see me dance across the kitchen, parsnips flailing to the more powerful sections.
Amazingly, this is Mendelssohn’s first widely respected work, and he wrote it at the age of sixteen. This fact alone seems incredible to me, but perhaps listening and letting the music take hold of me earlier the youthfulness and energy of the music does shine through. The octet doesn’t seem to move me on any deep level, just through its surface, adrenalin fuelled intensity. The playing is exceptionally acute, and the recording quality really brings this out, separating the instruments nicely and allowing each to sound clearly so the interactions between each of them are all clearly audible. This all gives the music a really powerful, passionate energy as it bounces along, each twist and turn htrowing me mentally and physically in another direction. The Mendelssohn octet isn’t as perfectly structured as the Schubert String Quintet in C, but it has the same ability to lift you up mentally, like it or not and give your spirits an extra charge.
Compared to the Mendelssohn, the Boccherini quintet is a much more refined, gentler affair, though it is still very much a romantic, melodically rich work. Apparently Boccherini wrote more than a hundred quintets, a quite remarkable number when you consider the insignificance of the form when compared to the popularity of the string quartet. This one, scored in C major for “cello and strings” Op.37 No.7 is, I am guessing, a standard quartet with an additional cello, as per the Schubert piece I love so much. It certainly sounds that way, but again the liner notes are unclear. This piece of music was an unexpected surprise. Again, beautifully remastered from the same original session the music is wonderfully presented, which makes its swooping, achingly beautiful melodies resonate strongly. Apparently Boccherini is often compared to Haydn, another composer I do not know well and plan to investigate soon, but the character of this music is quite unlike much else I have listened to in my classical investigations so far. The second movement, a minuette, is probably my least favourite part here, its circular, thoroughly danceable rhythms probably move the furthest from the rich, expressionistic romanticism that drives the music throughout, but the Grave section that follows makes up for this with its bold, almost stately composition that reminds me a little of Vivaldi’s better moments, slow but clear and unswerving in its firm yet richly coloured brushstrokes.
Boccherini was apparently a cellist himself, and this really shines through in the music. The cellos really reverberate through the work, the lead in particular played I think by Kenneth Heath allowed to drive the melody that gives the music its thrust. The additional deeper instrument again gives the music a warmth that can be found in the Schubert quintet, a richness that pushes the violins into an accompaniment role rather than take the foreground as they usually would in a quartet. This element particularly grabs my ear. I will probably always gravitate towards music that pulls the cello forward. I’m not sure why, but the instrument seems to tap into something in my subconscious in some way.
Maybe back to the early music next week, but it is also possible that I might attend a performance of Schubert’s wonderful Death and the Maiden quartet next Sunday, performed alongside a Haydn quartet in Oxford, in which case I will report back from that one.