Mendelssohn, Enescu: Octets - Gringolts Quartet, Meta4
Classical - Chamber
Gringolts Quartet, Meta4
Before Felix Mendelssohn produced his Octet for strings in 1825, only Louis Spohr had composed for a similar combination of instruments. Rather than an octet, however, Spohr’s work was a ‘double quartet’ written for two equal but independent string quartets. Mendelssohn, on the other hand, treated the eight instruments as a single unit, collaborating ‘in symphonic orchestral style’, as he himself put it. He was only sixteen when he composed the Octet, full of a youthful ardour that has made it one of his most popular works. It is a farewell to the Mozartian style that had characterized Mendelssohn’s early production and at the same time a first step on the way to Romanticism.
The second octet on this disc is also a youthful work written at a time of transition, now from Romanticism to Modernism: George Enescu was 19 years old when he completed his Octet in C major in December 1900. The work is concentrated, complex and highly contrapuntal, a sounding illustration of what Enescu elsewhere described in words: ‘I am by nature a polyphonist, not at all an advocate of sequences of pretty chords. I have a horror of anything that stagnates. For me, music is not a state but rather an action…’ Among the small number of works for this instrumental combination, these belong to the very finest, and are here performed by two of today’s leading quartets: the Gringolts Quartet and Meta4 have both made numerous acclaimed recordings in the most diverse repertoire.
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Review by John Broggio - December 5, 2021
First of all, an apology for the belated review of this extraordinary disc; if you are looking for a gift idea (perhaps to yourself!), please consider this. It is as near to engendering a feeling of listening to a concert as I have heard for some time (one that we can fortunately hear repeatedly).
The Mendelssohn already has several excellent accounts that may well already be adorning the collections of listeners (in no particular order): Mendelssohn with the ACO, Mendelssohn: Complete Chamber Music for Strings Vol. 3 - Mandelring Quartett & Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto, Octet - Ferschtman / Bakels. This is a more overtly Romantic account than, say, the Mandelring/Cremona performance and has a "sunnier" sound enriched by a more liberal (though never cloying) use of vibrato. Unlike the other accounts, Gringolts applies a few (appropriate) embellishments to the first violin line, most noticeably in the first movement. Speeds throughout are, in common with most accounts of the modern era, generally moving the musical arguments forwards without ever feeling hurried. It is important to note that even when at their most effervescent, the playing and recording are good and clear enough to hear every note without difficulty; this is particularly remarkable in their accounts of the gossamer Scherzo and genuinely "presto" tempo for the finale. The flowing tempo used for the Andante allows the musical lines to flow gracefully from instrument to instrument and the different ideas coalesce more naturally than if a (slightly) more sedate tempo is adopted. Any worries that having one "star" name and seven others on the cohesiveness of the performance are quickly dispelled and it is an account I return to frequently, such is the freshness of the playing.
The real reason to purchase this disc though is the performance of Enescu's wonderful composition for the same forces; perhaps understandably it hasn't gained as much recognition as Mendelssohn's but it deserves to be well known and the performance here makes the best possible advocacy for Enescu's work. Enescu's octet is nearly 10 minutes longer than Mendelssohn's and consists of four connected movements, so it is more (arguably) demanding on both performers and audiences.
The octet opens in compound time with a sweeping theme presented in all the instruments except for the second cello who plays an insistent pedal note in quavers. After this exposition of the main theme, the instrumental lines diverge and offer an even richer range of sorority than from Mendelssohn, in no small part because the scoring is arguably more innovative and varied here. The distribution of the leading line is more evenly shared out across the octet and allows for greater expression from all the musicians. As the forward to the score notes, it is in cyclical style and although that can sometimes lead to weaker passages, Enescu does not fall into this trap, aided by the musicianship that manages to get each musical paragraph to lead convincingly to the next while allowing plenty of room for the ideas to "breathe".
The second movement opens as a much more ferocious take on the scherzo (albeit in 4:4 than the usual 3 beats per bar) than Mendelssohn conceived although there are plenty of passages where a similar delicacy is both demanded and delivered. The ravishingly beautiful slow movement plays with sonority further by contrasting muted and unmuted instruments. At the beginning of the movement, this is the simplest section of the work on paper and the dedication of these players makes the accompaniment rise above the routine and is delivered with as much care as the remainder of the movement which blossoms in harmonic and rhythmical complexity.
The finale is cast as a waltz and, as with the Mendelssohn, this is moved along in tempo without ever feeling rushed. The playing matches the extraordinary and intoxicatingly beautiful composition that, again like Mendelssohn's, has many highly virtuoso passages. The final flourish contains more than a passing nod to the conclusion of Schubert's equally marvellous string quintet and that then provokes the realisation of the inspiration for much of this incredible work. This performance of the Enescu is so compelling, moving and exciting from each and every member of the two quartets, it is hard to restrain oneself from repeating it.
The recording itself is a thing of wonder. Apart from the clarity and cohesiveness obtained, the cellos are still afforded resonance in their lower registers and one can hear the "snap" of strings against finger boards to add to the atmosphere. Importantly, the sound picture permits homogeneity when the players desire it and it is almost impossible to imagine this repertoire better presented, musically or sonically.
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