Mendelssohn: String Octet, Piano Sextet / I Solisti Filarmonici Italiani
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MENDELSSOHN Octet in E?, op. 20. Sextet in D for Piano and Strings, op. 110 • I Solisti Filarmonici Italiani • CPO 777524 (62:28)
"You would think by looking at the header that you were getting one of Mendelssohn’s early works, his miraculous Octet composed in 1825 at the age of 16, and one of his very late ones, the D-Major Sextet for Piano and Strings. But the opus numbering of Mendelssohn’s works, based largely on dates of publication rather than on composition, is highly misleading. The Sextet is arguably even more of a miracle than the Octet because it was written a year earlier, when the composer was 15, but it wasn’t published until 1868, nearly two decades after the composer’s death.
Mendelssohn may not have written as many works as a number of other famous composers, but sometimes I wonder if he wouldn’t win the note-count contest. It’s said that as composers ripen into old age their writing becomes more economical, that they find ways of expressing what they have to say with fewer notes. We’ll never know if Mendelssohn, too, would eventually have become more sparing because he didn’t live long enough for us to find out, but something I’ve always found astonishing about his music, whether listening to it or trying to play it, is the sheer number of notes that pepper the page. “Fly poop” was how a friend once described it. And nowhere is it more evident than in these two early works.
In the Sextet, it’s the pianist, of course, who goes over Mendelssohn’s Niagara in a barrel. Or should I say in a barrage of nonstop passagework? It’s the Octet, however, that has proved to be the much more popular work and an enduring monument to Mendelssohn’s genius. But can the Octet of a year later be said to represent a significant advance in the young composer’s technical grasp of his craft? After all, he’d already fully absorbed and mastered how to write for strings alone in his 12 string symphonies. So, in at least one respect, you could say that the Sextet was an even more ambitious undertaking for the 15-year-old because other than an unnumbered piano quartet in D Minor from 1822 and the first two numbered piano quartets of 1822 and 1823, the Sextet was the biggest chamber work with piano Mendelssohn had yet attempted, employing a highly unusual combination of instruments—in addition to the piano, only one violin, but two violas, a cello, and a double bass.
Still, in listening to the Sextet and the Octet in chronological order rather than the order in which they’re presented on the disc, one is struck by an advance of a different sort than a technical one that occurred in the year between the two works. The Sextet, fun and charming as it seems while listening to it, is eminently forgettable. The Octet is unforgettable; from its very opening gesture, it grabs you and doesn’t let go. In the Octet and the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream of the following year, Mendelssohn found his unique voice. This disparity is reflected, and legitimately so, in the number of recordings of the two works—fewer than 20 for the Sextet, more than 50 for the Octet.
I Solisti Filarmonici Italiani is a modern-instrument ensemble consisting of first-chair players from major Italian orchestras and international contest winners. All of the members, however, also perform on period instruments in well-known ensembles such as L’Arte dell’Arco, the Venice Baroque Orchestra, and the Academy of Ancient Music. So, this is a versatile bunch.
Not that long ago—in Fanfare 34:1—I was cool to a performance of the Sextet by the Gewandhaus Quartet with pianist Margarita Höhenrieder, but in the very next issue—34:2—I praised a performance by the Munich Piano Trio and Friends on a Genuin CD. More recently still—in 34: 4—Robert Markow welcomed a 1968 recording of the Sextet by the Vienna Octet, which became available in its first international CD release on Decca Eloquence. On the current offering, pianist Jolanda Violante goes over Mendelssohn’s falls in a 1928 Steinway Grand and survives the ordeal unscathed. The string players root for her like well-drilled cheerleaders, and all ends in a victorious finish. If it’s a new recording of the Sextet you’re looking for, I Solisti Filarmonici Italiani is easily recommended. "
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Catalog Number: 777524-2
Composer: Felix Mendelssohn
Orchestra/Ensemble: I Solisti Filarmonici Italiani