Mendelssohn: Octet, Op. 20 (1825)

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COMPOSERS: Mendelssohn
LABELS: Resonus
WORKS: Octet, Op. 20 (1825)
PERFORMER: Eroica Quartet; plus Ken Aiso, Marcus Barsham-Stevens (violin), Oliver Wilson (viola), Robin Michael (cello)

The Mendelssohn scholar Thomas Schmidt-Beste has recently written of the exposition of the Octet’s first movement, ‘after so much working and reworking of the thematic material, there does not seem much left for the composer to do in the development.’ This comment, made about the 1832 published score of the work, would seem to chime with the composer’s own views. In the original version recorded here (begun in 1825 but completed, according to Clive Brown, the following year), the developments, notably in the first two movements, are considerably longer, and with hindsight Mendelssohn obviously came to the conclusion that less was more. He may also have been keen to remove some of the more blatantly Beethovenian material, particularly that before letter D in the second movement – some gorgeous modulations here which I have savoured several times but, viewed clinically, perhaps they do slightly overegg the pudding.   
Not only are we given a new text for the work, but it’s ‘played on period instruments and with fingerings and bowings specific to the time’. I was struck by the clarity of texture in the more heavily scored passages and by the light touches of rubato, often to give space to a new entry, but never interrupting the flow. Some dynamics are added to the 1832 score: whether these are Mendelssohn’s, I cannot say, but without exception they add to the music’s impact and allure. Altogether it’s a splendid performance – a must for all who treasure this masterpiece. Roger Nichols