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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Octet in E flat, Op. 20 (1825) [31:45]
Max BRUCH (1838-1920)
Octet in B flat, Op. posth. (1920) [24:44]*
Kodály Quartet
Auer Quartet
* Zsolt Fejérvari (double-bass)
rec. Phoenix Studio, Budapest, June 2003 and April 2004. DDD
NAXOS 8.557270 [56:29]


The combined Kodály and Auer serve up an unusually delicate Mendelssohn Octet, bringing out, deliberately or otherwise, its family resemblance to the Midsummer Night's Dream music. The pulsing accompaniment at the first movement's start almost sneaks in, with the main theme rising lyrically over it. The fortes are never harsh or edgy; even the full chords are gently attacked. If you're accustomed to more aggressive accentuations and energized bowings in this music, the playing may feel understated. On the other hand, the second theme's reappearances in the minor take on a nice mystery and suspension, and there's enough impulse and sense of purpose to bind everything together. The coda's climaxes really do feel too consciously reined-in; even so, everything is properly proportioned to set up the peak moments.

The famous Andante also floats in lightly and quietly; the bassi don't apply excessive weight, and the upper strings float in like gossamer. The triplets, when they arrive, produce a subdued sort of agitation. As the movement progresses, however, the melodic fragments don't stand in sufficiently sharp relief against the accompaniments; with insufficient variety of texture to draw the ear, the overall effect is pallid. The Scherzo's flickering undulations revive interest, with some thrust in the phrasing, although there's also some loss of momentum through the series of violin turns in the middle section (at about 2:26). After some scrubby opening figures, the players lean into the finale's theme with a nice swing, its pointed accents taking the piece to a satisfying close.

Bruch's three-movement Octet is apparently a reworking of a string quintet, and offers the further option of string-orchestra performance, but this was my first encounter with it. It's a well-wrought, appealing piece, even if it seems impossibly conservative for 1920: the harmonic and structural idiom is that of Mendelssohn and Schumann, from a century earlier. The chorale-like writing at the start evokes a rapt, prayerful mood, contrasted against a more forceful second subject; there's a magical moment at 3:21, where the vigorous cadence melts into the descending legato phrases that begin the development. In the first part of the central Adagio, a dotted motif maintains an ominous undercurrent beneath long-breathed lines. At 2:04, the music unexpectedly pivots into the major, becoming expansively lyrical; this more hopeful mood dominates the remainder of the movement, even through the return of the opening motif. The finale briefly flirts with high drama, but the main material is cheerful; as in the Mendelssohn, the players infuse the movement with a buoyant, infectious rhythmic swing.

Bruch's replacement of Mendelssohn's second cello with a double bass more firmly anchors the sonority, giving a more substantial, "symphonic" effect. Perhaps influenced by this, the ensemble's playing changes markedly here. In the first movement, for example, the incisive attack on the second subject is unlike anything we heard in the Mendelssohn, as is the emphatic marking of the arrival point at 7:31. The performance as a whole sounds better fleshed-out, tonally and musically, than in the other piece.

Recommended for the Bruch, and for a different take on the ever-popular Mendelssohn.

Stephen Francis Vasta 



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