OWith the exception of a handful of works – the miraculous Octet, composed when the composer was only 16, a few early and late string quartets, and perhaps one of the piano trios – the music of Mendelssohn’s room remains too little known. The string quintets, written for the pairs of violins and violas with a single cello that Mozart chose in his quintets, are superb examples of what this neglected music can offer.
There are two, composed nearly 20 years apart. The Quintet in A major Op 18 dates from 1826, the year after the Octet, and a year before the first of Mendelssohn’s truly mature string quartets, A major Op 13. (Throughout his career, numbers opuses attributed to Mendelssohn’s works sometimes bear little relation to the order in which they were composed.) Its opening movement has the same youthful liveliness and effortless lyricism that characterizes much of the Op 13 quartet, while its hasty scherzo recalls the equivalent movement of the Octet. The Quintet in B flat op. 87, written in 1845, was his penultimate chamber work and, it seems to me, one of his finest achievements – a score of immense breadth and dazzling power with an intense slow movement as the center of gravity.
Although there are a few moments in performances by the Doric Quartet and violist Timothy Ridout where the textures seem muddier than they perhaps should, they generally do both quintets full justice. They give free rein to the laid-back invention of Opus 18, while treating its slow intermezzo, Mendelssohn’s 1832 replacement of the original second movement, with an almost Beethovenian depth, and the energy of their narrative of the Opus 87 is also quite irresistible.
The other choice of the week
shadesthe Manchester Collective second album on the Bedroom Community label, is devoted to the two string quartets of Edmond Finnis, of which he composed the second for the group last year. Finnis describes the scores as “some of the most personal and intimate pieces” he has written. “The results of something I am unable to fully express in words.” The starting point for the first quartet was a reflection on William Byrd’s setting of a fifth-century hymn which forms the fourth of its five movements, while the second quartet grew out of some recordings of songs Finnis had composed. in his teens, and whom he rediscovered during a move. The common point of the two works is the marvelous refinement of the writing of the strings, its aerial lyricism and its fragile and touching beauty.