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Felix MENDELSSOHN-Bartholdy (1809-1847)
Sextet in D major for violin, 2 violas, cello, bass and piano Op. 110 (1824) [28:45]
Octet in E flat major for strings, Op. 20 (1825) [31:42]
The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center Players.
Sextet: David Golub (piano), Cho-Liang Lin (violin), Paul Neubauer, Toby Hoffman (violas), Gary Hoffman (cello), Edgar Meyer (bass)
Octet: Cho-Liang Lin, Peter Winograd, Carmit Zori, Ani Kavafian (violins), Toby Hoffman, Paul Neubauer (violas), Gary Hoffman, Fred Sherry (cellos)
Sextet: Recorded First Congregational Church, Los Angeles, California, USA; Octet: Recorded St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, New York, USA. No recording dates given. DDD
DELOS DE 3266 [60:28]

Amazingly Felix Mendelssohn was only 15 years old when he composed his Piano Sextet in 1824. This is scored for the unusual combination of a single violin, two violas, cello, double bass and piano, instrumentation which provided the composer with fascinating musical possibilities as the rich sonorities clearly demonstrate. Both Mendelssohn and his sister were most proficient pianists so it is not surprising that the keyboard is the instrument that has the most prominent role. The Piano Sextet which has been described as a small scale piano concerto is an attractive and appealing work with a tremendous immediacy.

The opening movement is alive with ‘free-flowing flights of runs and arpeggios for the pianist’ (05:50). The piano soloist receives only polite support from the strings throughout and there is a general calm feeling suggestive perhaps of relaxing in a beautiful garden on a warm and sunny summer’s day.

The second movement Adagio is like a slow movement from a lightly orchestrated piano concerto. The piano soloist does have interchange with the strings which reminds me of a first date between a shy teenage boy making tentative conversation with his demure girlfriend.

Energetic and jaunty, the extremely short Menuetto marked Agitate displays a more mature and sophisticated conversation between piano and strings (01:23).

Another showpiece for the piano is the Finale. Mendelssohn seems to have given the piano soloist free-rein to show-off to the strings who appear rather subdued offering only minimal accompaniment (04:17).

It would have been so easy for an obdurate pianist to be heavy-handed and spoil the balance of the work. The late David Golub proves to be more than up to the task displaying the required sensitivity and proves to be a most adept soloist

The Piano Sextet’s main rival (one of few) in the catalogue is a digital release from the augmented Bartholdy Piano Quartet on Naxos 8.550967. This is a fine performance and a particular favourite of mine. Although there have been some reservations stated concerning the recording balance it has never impacted on my listening pleasure. However I would now swop my Bartholdy version for this new Delos release. The players of The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center display a real sense of enjoyment together with the necessary zest and energy.

Composed a year later, in 1825, Mendelssohn’s Octet is one of the earliest works for eight string instruments. Consequently he had no clear models to copy or precedents to hold to when composing the work. The String Octet is extremely engaging with that clear stamp of genius and it has been an evergreen favourite of the chamber music genre. This master work from the 16 year old Mendelssohn seems reminiscent of childhood innocence and long hot summer holidays that we never seemed to want to end. The Octet is a natural progression from Mendelssohn’s earlier youthful string symphonies. The composer’s directions are particularly apt: ‘this Octet must be played by all the instruments in the manner of a symphony’.

I never get tired of hearing the vaulting arpeggio theme in the opening movement played by the first violin of Cho-Liang Lin. This gives evidence of the joy to come (00:01). The first two movements of the Octet alternate between an orchestral aspect and that of a violin concerto. A good example of the orchestral tone of the playing can be heard in the second movement Andante from point 4:13.

Inspired by an episode from Goethe’s ‘Faust’ the third movement Scherzo really demonstrates intelligent and subtly secure teamwork from the players. They adhere to Mendelssohn’s sister Fanny’s instruction that the movement ‘should be played staccato and pianissimo’ (point 0:57). In 1829, in response to public demand, Mendelssohn was to orchestrate the Scherzo and use it as a replacement movement in his Symphony No.1 in C minor.

The Finale is a real tour de force and here Mendelssohn puts to good use the childhood hours that he spent copying out Bach’s fugues. The group’s playing of the brilliant conclusion capped by a melodious coda is a real delight (4:19).

The String Octet presented here has some fierce competition in the catalogues. The most notable digital rivals include versions from the ASMF Chamber Ensemble on Philips Virtuoso 420 400-2PH and Ensemble Divertimenti on Hyperion CDA 66356. My particular favourite has been the period instrument version from Hausmusik London on Virgin Veritas 5 61809 2 but not any more as this new Delos recording is so much more impressive with a particularly exciting and polished performance.

I knew I was in for a real treat from the first few bars of this version of the Octet and Sextet. The playing has a genuine enthusiasm and verve complete with an innate and classy assurance. I must single out for special praise the playing of first violinist Cho-Liang Lin who is clearly as fine a chamber music player as he is a world class soloist in the heavyweight late-romantic violin concertos in which he specialises. In fact most of the players are successful and experienced soloists of the top rank in their own right, a formula which is not always a guarantee of success. However in these two works the group’s teamwork, musical intimacy and sense of pleasure from performing together is a joy to behold. But why, oh why, do the group have the long winded seven word name, ‘The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’; when just pronouncing it is a performance in itself.

The recording has a warm and well focused sound, nicely detailed with a very natural balance. This Delos release is a real winner in terms of repertoire, performance, interpretation, sound quality and sheer enjoyment. Undoubtedly this will be one of my records of the year.

Michael Cookson

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