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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Symphony No. 10 in B minor for Strings, Op. posth. [13:00]
Symphony No. 11 in F major for Strings, Op. posth. [42:10]
Symphony No. 12 in G minor for Strings, Op. posth. [21:21]
Symphony No. 9 in C major for Strings, Op. posth. [25:23]
Octet in E Flat major, Op. 20 [32:49]
I Musici
rec. 1961-1970
ELOQUENCE 4825111 [76:52 + 58:20]

This recent release from Eloquence focuses on the young Felix Mendelssohn, who began composing at the age of ten. Before long he was producing music that was technically assured and underpinned by a fertile imagination. The String Symphonies and Octet sprang from these adolescent years, and I'll also add to the list the Overture to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. It's hardly surprising that a BBC Music Magazine poll of experts in 2009 voted Mendelssohn the most amazing child prodigy in musical history, ahead of Schubert, Korngold and, yes, Mozart.

The Octet, the focal-point, is a veritable feast of youthful optimism and exuberance, brimming over with infectious vitality. Composed in 1825, it's an amazing achievement for a sixteen year old by any standards. Mendelssohn revised it in 1832 before the first public performance on 30 January 1836 at the Leipzig Gewandhaus. It's this version that is mostly played, though I see that the original version received a world premiere recording by the Eroica Quartet and friends on Resonus Classics in 2011; sadly I've not had the chance to hear it. The version here by I Musici has special significance for me. It was the LP version that was my introduction to this work many years ago. I've always treasured that LP, so was pleased to have the opportunity to review its latest reincarnation. The opening movement has plenty of forward momentum and that necessary feeling of being uninhibited. A lyrical Andante follows, ardently etched and eloquently shaped. The famous Scherzo is light, airy and crisply articulated, and precedes a finale revealing some adept contrapuntal scoring. It's a terrific performance, and has scrubbed up well in Eloquences new transfer.

I've always had a particular affection for the String Symphonies. They have an upbeat effortless charm, and I’ve collected two or three versions over the years of which the cycle played by the Festival Strings Lucerne under Achim Fielder on Oehms Classics seems to deliver the goods for me. I Musici offer the last four - numbers 9-12, written between 1821 and 1823, when Mendelssohn was between 12 and 14 years old - a remarkable achievement for one so young. Yet the composer didn't hold them in such high regard, considering them apprentice works. When the manuscripts went missing, he was unruffled. They remained lost for 130 years until their rediscovery in 1950. They reveal a competent compositional hand and are rich in lyricism. The influences are Bach, Handel, Haydn and Mozart. Yet, in the mature ones on this recording, Mendelssohn was finding his own voice, and they're unmistakably his work. I can't stress, for those who haven't encountered them, how good they are.

No. 9 has always been my favorite. After a stately opening in the minor key, the trademark lyrically effusive Mendelssohn breaks forth. What amazes me every time I listen to it is the harmonic adventurousness and rhythmic resourcefulness it displays. I Musici's account of the Andante has warmth and tenderness, one of the finest versions I've heard. They bring lightness and buoyancy to the Scherzo and a compelling sense of fun to the finale. There's a startling level of maturity in No. 12, the final String Symphony, cast in three movements. The  Grave introduction to the first movement has a Handelian grandeur. Throughout the work there's an impressive display of the composer’s contrapuntal skills, with a complex four-part fugue in the opening movement, and a finely executed fugue in the finale. These movements frame a beguiling Andante.

I Musici bring freshness and vitality to these youthful scores. They’ve been captured in fine sound. Excellent accompanying liner notes by Michael Muir supply useful background.

Stephen Greenbank


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