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Mendelssohn quintets CHAN20218
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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
String Quintet No. 1 Op. 18, MWV R21 (1826-7, rev. 1832) [30:40]
String Quintet No. 2 Op. 87, MWV R33 (1845) [30:43]
Doric String Quartet, Timothy Ridout (viola)
rec. May 2021 at Potton Hall, Dunwich, UK
CHANDOS CHAN20218 [61:31]

Composers of string quartets sometimes also write a quintet or two, usually adding a second viola, though Schubert preferred a second cello. So among the Viennese classics there are fine quintets by Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Bruckner (who wrote no quartets) and Brahms, and these two by Mendelssohn fit among their number. They come from the beginning and end of his compositional life and make an appropriate pairing.

The first quintet was composed in 1826 when Mendelssohn was seventeen, but in 1832 the composer discarded the original second movement, the Minuet Op. 18a, in favour of the Intermezzo marked Andante Sostenuto, which now stands in its place. The work as a whole comes shortly after the miraculous Octet and it follows up that success with an equally worthy work. The first movement opens with a charming Mozartian theme and proceeds serenely in a leisurely and discursive way, with well contrasted themes and a triplet figure which dominates the development. The Intermezzo, also in sonata form, begins with a three note motif but soon leads to more rapid figuration which pervades most of the movement. The Scherzo is quite like that of the Octet, though less consistent in its mood. The finale is cheerful and fast, and again triplets are important. Throughout the work we feel the spirit of Haydnesque playfulness rather than Beethovenian seriousness and the result is an elegant and charming work.

The second quintet is less consistent, though still impressive. Indeed, Mendelssohn was disssatisfied with it and didn’t publish it himself. It was put in order by Julius Rietz and published posthumously in 1851. The first movement recalls that of the Octet and again triplets become important. There is a considerable use of tremolo in a way which suggests that Schubert, rather than Haydn, is the presiding spirit of this work, The second movement is an example of Mendelssohn’s fairy music, something at which he always excelled. The slow movement is in complete contrast, a funeral march marked Adagio e lento. The two violins lament above repeated rhythms in the lower strings, though there are also moments of consolation. After this intense and conentrated piece the finale comes as possibly rather trivial. It is very busy, with lots of notes, but rather short, dominated by contrapuntal developments of its first subject while the fine second subject is only touched on in the recapitulation. Mendelssohn himself told Ignaz Moscheles that he thought the finale not very good and he did not publish the work. However, though not as satisfactory a whole as the first quintet, it contains much fine music, and the slow movement is a unique achievement.

The Doric quartet have already recorded all Mendelssohn’s quartets (review of their first volume here), and it is a natural extension to take in the quintets as well. They are joined by Timothy Ridout, but there is no sense of his being an outsider; he is integrated seamlessly within the texture. They play with the necessary lightness and elegance and, where required, with considerable virtuosity, necessary given Mendelssohn’s enthusiasm for rapid triplets. Only in the finale of the first quintet did I think they were occasionally a little heavy, but this is a minor matter. The recording is excellent and the sleevenotes helpful. This is a valuable recording.

Stephen Barber

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