Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Octet in E flat major, Op.20 [30.45]
George ENESCU (1881-1955)
Octet for Strings in C major, Op.7 [38.08]
rec. 2018, Sellosali, Espoo, Finland
BIS BIS-2447 SACD [69.43]
The Mendelssohn Octet is an astonishing work, and one of which I have never tired, both in the precocity of its sixteen-year-old composer, but also because of its level of invention and originality. It has something of the symphonic while never losing its connection with chamber music. I first encountered it by way of the now venerable (but so fresh) Argo recording by the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, half a century ago; and until this one, no other recording (including the later Philips one with the Academy) has displaced the original in my affections. I treasure still the memory of a wonderful live performance by the combined Heath and Elias Quartets, alas a combination never recorded. That live performance, by two young quartets, captured the youthful energy and vibrancy of the work.
So too here. The combination of two young but astonishingly confident and authoritative quartets brings out the sensitive interplay between players, so that inner details emerge very clearly. There are subtleties, too: listen for example, to the way the opening moments of the first movement so gently creep in. It is a matter of seconds only, like the gentlest tap on the door, and then we are away. Repeats are observed, notably in the first movement. There is a zest to the playing throughout, but at no loss to more reflective passages. In this recording, we have also the benefit of superb recording quality. SACD, here splendidly realised, enables inner details to emerge perfectly.
The Enescu Octet, for identical forces is very much less well-known, but has many felicities. Its style – a single symphonic movement – nevertheless contains something very close to the traditional four movements, with a rather furious fugato as the second movement and a nocturne-like third movement, to climax in a rhythmical, waltz-like fourth section, drawing on earlier material. In 1900, it seemed hideously modern to the original performers (the second section, in particular, must have seemed quite primitively savage) and it was not publicly performed until 1909. But, in truth, the piece has a depth which make it worth a great deal more than cursory exploration. The Mendelssohn Octet has no traditional coupling, and different recordings are differently accompanied. There is a recording with the current coupling from 2009, drawn from live performances from the Spannungen Festival (AVI AVI8553163), with an extraordinary group of soloists, including Christian Tetzlaff, Isabelle Faust, Lisa Batiashvili and Antoine Tamestit. I have not heard this recording: published timings suggest that the Enescu is played a little more expansively than here. Unfamiliarity with the Enescu should be no discouragement to anyone, however, and this new recording will give tremendous satisfaction.