Octet in E flat major for strings, Op. 20 (1825) [33:02]
Sextet in D major for piano and strings Op. 110 (1824) [29:12]
I solisti Filarmonici Italiani
Jolanda Violante (piano)
rec. 4-7 May 2009, Studio Magister, Preganziol, Italy
CPO 777 524-2 [62:28]
This is an intriguing and, in my opinion, highly successful release. Mendelssohn’s youthful masterpiece, the Octet in E flat major for strings, Op. 20, has been recorded too many times to mention, but this recording gives us an excuse to buy it all over again. There is a tradition of performing the piece through the conjoining of two more or less established string quartets, though a glance at the catalogue shows plenty of chamber music ensembles pared down from larger orchestras or specialist chamber groups who have recorded the piece. The ‘string project’ recorded listings already have a top recommendation by the Emerson Quartet, but this has essential differences to the release at hand. While not accusing other ensembles of lack of sensitivity to Mendelssohn’s idiom, the members of I solisti Filarmonici Italiani approach this music very much with ‘period performance’ in mind, working forward from experience as musicians in the field of baroque music and using instruments with gut rather than metal strings. This is by no means an over-sanitised ‘early music’ performance of the Octet however, and while there is some restraint in terms of vibrato, the playing is more typically red-blooded and full of the high spirits this music demands.
I have to say I do quite like the effect this ensemble brings to this music. The opening has a rousing character which makes you want to carry on listening, and by and large the rewards and returns are equal to this promising start. The irrepressible energy of the opening movement is reined in by soulful moods in the Andante, given plenty of expression in this recording without laying on the sentiment with a trowel. The Allegro leggierissimo also works well, with a nice layering of sustained notes without vibrato a tonal halo around the thematic banter from the rest of the players. The articulation can be a bit scratchy here and there, and this is something which is a bit of a blemish with the final Presto. In this case the busy notes of the opening cellos are less distinct than I’ve heard elsewhere, though the high-octane pace is compelling and attractive most of the time. With a somewhat dry acoustic, in the end this recording doesn’t quite top the sensitivity of touch and transparency which can be found on that of another recording for which I have a good deal of affection, that with ensemble Hausmusik on the Virgin Veritas label. It doesn’t miss the mark by very much however, and if the ‘period’ approach attracts then this recording is unlikely to disappoint.
With the added sonority of a double-bass and the sparkle of a piano, the Sextet Op.110 is an entirely different prospect, though written a year before the Octet and when the composer was only 15 years old. Here, the period approach is compromised somewhat by the use of a Steinway from 1928 rather than a replica of an instrument contemporary with Mendelssohn’s time. This is a fine sounding instrument however, and does have a more sympathetic singing tone than you would be likely to find with a later model. The piano blends well with the string sonorities, and the chamber-music feel of the piece - the interaction of equal instruments rather than a concerto-like soloist-accompaniment relationship is nicely balanced in this case.

Looking at a release on the Delos label with this identical coupling of works performed by the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society the differences between this and what might be called a ‘period’ performance become clearer, and with the subtle little string inflections of a movement such as the Menuetto less encumbered with wide vibrato. I do like the transparency of the Lincoln Center recording however, and honours are even with this movement’s Schubertesque ‘trout’ gestures from the piano and in many other crucial little moments.
The rather marginal differences in performance style between quoted references and other favourite recordings are ones which allow this fine CPO recording to exist and thrive alongside these established releases, and its inherent high quality makes it recommendable in its own right.
Dominy Clements
A recommendable alternative with a period approach.