Mendelssohn: Octet in E flat, Op. 20; Sextet in D, Op. 110

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COMPOSERS: Mendelssohn
WORKS: Octet in E flat, Op. 20; Sextet in D, Op. 110
PERFORMER: Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center
Among recommendable CDs of Mendelssohn’s Octet the spick-and-span ASMF version, 1978 vintage (Philips), has long had its devotees, as has the more emotionally expansive performance from the Melos Ensemble (EMI). Other front-runners include the combined Cleveland and Meliora Quartets (Teldec), a reading pungently characterised though recorded in an over-resonant acoustic, and the wonderfully limber version from Hausmusik (Virgin), using gut strings and period bows. This new performance is in many ways akin to the Cleveland/Meliora: a strong, athletic reading, rhythmically vital and carefully balanced, with the expert leader properly dominant but never overbearing. Delos’s recording, though not ideally lucid, lets you hear more subterranean detail than Teldec’s. But the Cleveland/Meliora score with their greater abandon (above all in a thrilling finale) and their closer attention to dynamic detail. Even at the outset the Lincoln Center players slightly tame both the hairpin accents and the sweeping crescendos, while elsewhere – especially in the scherzo – their pianissimos tend to be just too immediate and corporeal.


For a modern-instrument performance my vote would still go to the Melos, followed by the more combustible Cleveland/Meliora. But my favourite of all is the version from Hausmusik, which combines fire, dancing delicacy and unrivalled transparency of texture. Couplings may, of course, be a clinching factor. Most versions offer a Mendelssohn string quartet or quintet. The Lincoln Center players are more enterprising, giving a deft, elegant performance of the rare Sextet for piano and strings composed a year before the Octet: not on the Octet’s level, granted, and at times inclined to chatter over-excitedly, but hinting in the dark, agitated D minor minuet of greatness to come. Richard Wigmore