Being Mendelssohn

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COMPOSERS: Mendelssohn
LABELS: Music@Menlo
WORKS: Music@Menlo Live 2009: Chamber works by Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Jalbert, Ligeti, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Schumann and Spohr
PERFORMER: St Lawrence Quartet; Pacifica Quartet etc
CATALOGUE NO: Music@Menlo 2009


Last year’s Music@Menlo festival, commemorating Mendelssohn’s bicentenary, opened with a concert tracing Bach’s influence on his music.

Five numbers from The Art of the Fugue, sensitively played with sparing use of vibrato by the St Lawrence Quartet, were followed by the Six-part Ricercar from the Musical Offering, and Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue in C minor (its fugue subject clearly modelled on that of Bach’s Ricercar).

Finally one of Mendelssohn’s youthful string symphonies – itself a prelude and fugue – then a spirited account of his Sextet for piano and strings, composed aged 15.  

The Octet composed the following year receives a fine account on CD2, its famous scherzo rightly played with lightness and transparency rather than mere speed; but the remainder of the disc is less impressive: the ‘Nocturne’ and Scherzo from Midsummer Night’s Dream sound rather ponderous in their piano duet arrangement, and the Pacifica give a prosaic account of Beethoven’s Op. 18 No. 6 Quartet.

Scarcely less miraculous than Mendelssohn’s Octet is the String Quintet No. 1 composed just a year later, the greatest two-viola work of its kind after Mozart. But for many, the highlight of these concerts will be the two Mendelssohn piano trios, played by Menahem Pressler with cellist and festival-founder David Finckel and another Emerson Quartet member, Eugene Drucker. Pressler is now in his mid-eighties, but you wouldn’t guess it: his playing is as fresh and vital as ever, and the beauty of his pianissimo tone is breathtaking.


The fourth CD couples Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata, in a gutsy performance by Arnold Sussman and Wu Han, with Spohr’s Nonet; while the third is an odd-man-out, with Ligeti’s wind quintet Bagatelles, the Brahms A major Piano Quartet, and an unexceptional piano trio by the contemporary American composer Pierre Jalbert. But all these, too, show the festival’s high standard of music-making. Misha Donat