MENDELSSOHN Octet; Variations concertantes
It’s easy to love the Mendelssohn Octet, and I found the Ensemble Explorations' account irresistible. True, the recorded sound is rather too resonant, but the playing has real fire and vitality and the more soulful solo passages, violinist Christine Busch’s especially, are truly eloquent; at the first movement’s climactic moments her tone rings out effortlessly above the texture. The recent Emerson version is much more sharply recorded, with much finely polished detail, yet their earnestly projected tone doesn’t give the sense of joyful flight that characterises this new recording.
The Scherzo may seem a little tame after the brilliant, high-speed Emersons, but it catches the nocturnal atmosphere and leaves room for an exciting increase in speed for the Presto finale. The cello and piano items are played with beautiful expression; Frank Braley clearly enjoys his 1874 Steinway. (Harmonia Mundi says that some early copies of the booklet describe the final item, Assai tranquillo, as the Albumblatt, Op 117.)
The Henschel Quartet’s Mendelssohn set, now complete, is a fine achievement and an extraordinary bargain. I’m impressed by the intense involvement that makes the outer movements of No 3, for example, sound not merely brilliant but truly joyful. The two sparkling, quicksilver scherzi (in No 4 and Op 81) are admirably light and well controlled, but the Henschels are less convincing in serene or wistful music (in the Andantes of Nos 4 and 3, respectively), tending to sound too active and forceful.
The Andante of No 4 is certainly more poetic on the Vogler disc, which offers performances full of colour and expressive detail. The Voglers play very freely, with added dynamics, unmarked tempo changes and even, at one place in No 4’s finale, some unusual notes. I find most of these liberties a natural part of a creative interpretation, but at 5’09” on track 4 (Op 12’s finale) where Mendelssohn, who up to this point has been in the ‘wrong’ key, finally returns to E flat, the Voglers suddenly hare off at a faster speed, destroying what should be a majestic effect (as the Leipzig Quartet, for example, show). The fugues date from 1821 – academic exercises, no doubt, but amazing for a 12 year old – and are played with suitable objectivity, and very stylishly.
With so many new Mendelssohn quartet recordings, these marvellous works seem to grow in stature as different facets are emphasised – the Emersons demonstrating the brilliance and variety of the string writing, the Henschels showing the composer’s restless, forceful personality, while for the Voglers he’s a romantic poet, evoking a multiplicity of scenes and moods.