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Mendelssohn String Quartets, Music for Two Pianists, Walpurgis Night and Overtures

Die erste Walpurgisnacht
op. 60,
Die schöne Melusine, Ruy Blas, Meerestille und glückliche Fahrt, Die Hebriden
Arts Archive 43042-2

Collected works for string quartet
Arts Archive 47130-2

Music for Two Pianists Arts Archive 47621-2 & 47622-2

Arts Archives has a special corner for Mendelssohn which collectors should not pass by. I have recently reviewed Peter Maag's exemplary recording of the Symphonies and now have to consider their historic performances of the complete music for string quartet (Bartholdy Quartet), and the Goethe cantata The First Walpurgis Night Op60 together with a convenient group of the mature Overutres (Maag and forces from Turin).

It is strange that Die erste Walpurgisnacht op. 60 has dropped out of the repertoire. It is a lively piece about Druids beating off the Christian enemy, full of incident and only some 35 mins long. Better by far to my taste than the rather sententious oratorios and Reformation symphony. Vivid performance and well recorded for 1972/79, as are the overtures, which used to be regular concert openers. The Hebrides is a perennial gem, and it is good have four of them collected together to hear again. Die schöne Melusine (a favourite of Beecham's) and the Fair Sea and Prosperous Voyage (quoted in Elgar's Enigma Variations); Ruy Blas is the least attractive, rather bombastic.

The Mendelssohn string quartets should be in everyone's library, and this set by the composer's eponymous Bartholdy Quartet will do you as well as anyone's. Prizewinners in their time, they are poised and wise interpretations, avoiding over-emphasis but phrased beautifully and giving full power and vehemence to Felix Mendelssohn's angry memorial for his sister Fanny shortly before his own death. This Op 80 of 1847 famously won the Vellinger Quartet their victory in the London String Quartet Competition 1994, after which they led a performance of it in the Barbican Centre by all the participating quartets conducted by Sir Yehudi Menuhin; unforgettable!

The boxed has a thoughtful essay on the quartets by Ulrich Schreiber, who interprets Mendelssohn's backward looks to the classics as 'visionary evocations of a life of fulfillment which might have been happy for Man had he been reconciled to history'. Hans Keller regularly trumpeted his belief that Mendelssohn's understanding of the string quartet was one of the greatest glories of chamber music in the 19th centruy and this collection will persuade you of that truth.

We have also received these two unusual CDs of music for two pianists. I was interested to hear the first recording of the Octet in its original duet version for Felix and Fanny to play at home. It goes very well, and solves the problem of Octets in chamber music recitals; they are often given by ad-hoc get-togethers of ensembles and would benefit from being conducted. *

The rarely played two-piano concertos pleased me too, youthful works both on a very large scale (TT 80 mins!), composed at 15 by this precocious genius, the second never before recorded complete. These are well attuned players who apparently are not very well known because they eschew publicity and "stubbornly avoid media attention".

One quibble, I should have preferred the two pianos to have been stereo-separated, and it is good to know who is taking primo or secondo (with command of the pedal!) at the joint keyboard. Ideal material for a DVD? Watching duo pianists is half the pleasure.








* Belcea & Jerusalem Quartets at Cheltenham. - - Alexander Pavlovsky, took charge of both the Mendelssohn Octet and Shostakovich's two extant pieces from a five-movement suite for string octet - - the Mendelssohn received an under-rehearsed, ill considered, rough and unready account of a piece which is accepted as a canonical miracle of youth (16 when composed), an appellation which I would concede only for its scherzo. As suggested in S&H , reviewing a comparably unsatisfactory performance of Schubert's Octet in Berlin, eight musicians are too many to sort out for themselves refinements of style and balance, without close familiarity and generous preparation time. Perhaps those expansive octets are two examples of works which do not 'take care of themselves' and can often disappoint in live performances,

© Peter Grahame Woolf