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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Octet, Op. 20 [31:45]
Variations Concertantes [9:25]
Romance sans paroles [4:07]
Albumblatt [3:41]
Ensemble Explorations
Roel Dieltiens (cello)
Frank Braley (piano)
rec. August 2004, Chapelle d’Elzenveld, Belgium

I was, I confess, unprepared for how delightful I would find this disc. Mendelssohn’s Octet is one of the great winners of classical music – how can anyone avoid breaking into a smile when they hear it? – and my previous benchmark performance has been the 1972 Decca performance by the Wiener Oktett. This one is entirely different but still rather wonderful, and the main reason is Ensemble Explorations’s period playing style.

The effect is remarkable. Played with less vibrato, you might expect that opening theme to sound more constricted and introverted, but instead it veritably sings! I don’t remember being so refreshed by a first hearing of it in a very long time, and that hooked me in to a performance of the first movement that sailed and flew along. It’s altogether exhilarating, and there is no loss of scale, either. In fact, lots of the tutti passages felt like as though there was a full orchestra playing, not just eight strings. The slow movement then has the quality of an operatic aria, played with uncommon intensity and piercing feeling, while the Scherzo is as light as fairy dust and the finale busily controlled.

The other works feature Roel Dieltiens, the ensemble’s principal cello and founder, playing along with Frank Braley on his 1874 Steinway. Their Variations concertantes is nicely varied, representing a proper musical journey, and their Romance sans paroles is winsomely full of the joy of young love. The Albumblatt is much more serious, and is played with dark intensity (and lots of vibrato). It’s an oddly out-of-mood way to end the disc, but the fillers hardly matter because the Octet is the reason to acquire this disc. The packaging is slimline, but you still get a good essay in the booklet note, though we could argue that the running time of the disc is pretty mean. At near budget price, however, this really deserves your attention.

Simon Thompson


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