How does Mendelssohn’s original version compare to what we know?
I wasn’t particularly expecting anything different until we started playing it. You get to the middle of the first movement and there’s a huge new bit of music right at the development section, that he later changed.
The second movement has some remarkable differences. The main melodies are the same but there are large sections he later cut, passionate outpourings with repeated semiquavers and triplets. The Scherzo is almost note for note unchanged. Quite rightly. It’s a little gem. The Finale has a lot of, what shall we say, ‘material’ in it that he since revised. I think that was well done on his behalf.
When he was 16 he seemed to write more confidently and he was as indulgent as he dared, he reined himself in later. Some of the cadences last twice as long in the early version. Later he was more concise and the final version of the Octet is sublime. Nevertheless it’s very inspiring to hear what he wrote when he was 16.
Does the material he edited out turn up elsewhere in his music?
Not that I’ve noticed. All the stuff he’s taken out is based on the themes in the Octet. But I think you have to regard the original as a slightly different piece. I remember coming across the original version of Schumann’s Fourth Symphony, which was reorchestrated later on. As with this Schumann, Mendelssohn’s original is slightly more quixotic and eccentric.
How did you feel when you first played the original?
It was amazing. I mean very, very exciting. We thought this isn’t just slightly different, it’s previously unheard vintage Mendelssohn. I felt proud to be sitting in a studio recording it and I’m excited to know what people’s reactions are going to be. People feel so personally close about this piece, they love it so deeply. We did find in the recording that when you let yourself go, it’s very easy to find yourself playing the known version by accident.
How did you become aware of this previously unperformed, unpublished version?
A few people were aware of this version. In my career I’ve come across people who’ve mentioned the different rhythms he’d written, and slightly different this that and the other. In about 1990 we did a quartet concert in Washington, and we’d recorded all his Quartets. Then during the Mendelssohn anniversary year in 2009 the Library of Congress phoned me and said they’d got this manuscript of the original Octet. We got a PDF of the score and a colleague of mine Roy Mowatt compiled the new edition of it.
You’ve recorded the Octet for Resonus Classics, the world’s first solely digital classical label. Do you think this is the future?
It’s difficult to know. The most exciting thing for me with this is you can get better than CD quality. Resonus Classics offer MP3, CD quality and studio quality. There’s twice as much information in studio quality than CD, so if you’ve got nice speakers at home it’ll sound like being the control room.
The other change is we can record just the Mendelssohn Octet. It would be too short for a CD, but with this we don’t have to find an appropriate piece to go with it. We just wanted to release the Octet as it’s never been done before. So there are lots of advantages, so I’m quite hopeful.
Interview by Rebecca Franks
The Eroica Quartet’s recording of the original version of Mendelssohn’s Octet is reviewed in the June issue of BBC Music Magazine. It is available to download now from Resonus Classics