String Quintets Nos 1 & 2
CAvi-music AVI 8553030 65:12 mins
Mendelssohn’s two string quintets deserve to be better known. They virtually bookend the composer’s life, the first dating from 1826, when he was just 17 – between the Octet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture – whereas the B flat Quintet is from 1845, shortly before Elijah. The scherzos, occupying a familiar twilit, magical territory, are among their most memorable features. The Bartholdy Quintett also provide the minuet that was the original third movement of Op. 18 (even if you can see why he replaced it with the scherzo) and also the fourth movement of Op. 87 in its first printed version (the same music, this time, but with differences of detail). The quintets have that supremely driven quality typical of Mendelssohn, as if his mind worked at such speed and with such intricacy that everything emerges effortlessly – whereas he was in fact an obsessive reviser of his scores.
The performers dig into those qualities for all they’re worth. They don’t play it safe, but step on the gas and risk high rewards at high speed when appropriate – and moments like the scherzo of Op. 18 present rapid, demanding writing in which the performers remain coolly unflappable. There’s a strong sense of unified ensemble and a pleasing shared energy, which makes for a rewarding listen – the sort of performance where the tempos and concept match and emerge well argued but feeling spontaneous and natural. If you love Mendelssohn, it’s pure enjoyment from start to finish.