Octet in E flat, Op.20
Octet in C, Op.7
Anthony Marwood & Isabelle van Keulen (violins), Lawrence Power (viola) & Richard Lester (cello) and Heath Quartet [Oliver Heath & Cerys Jones (violin), Gary Pomeroy (viola) & Christopher Murray (cello)]
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 7 October, 2014
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
Octets for strings are rarities among chamber music media, with the foremost examples both being by composers near the outset of their respective careers. Hearing them within the same recital is even rarer, so credit to Anthony Marwood and Friends for following up projects from the Peasmarsh Chamber Music Festival (of which Marwood and cellist Richard Lester are joint Artistic Directors) – resulting in a programme whose relatively modest duration (72 minutes) was belied by the power and intensity of the music-making.
Although regarded as a highpoint in his output, Mendelssohn’s Octet (1825) has likely been underestimated in terms of its radical approach to writing for strings. Spohr had already essayed pieces for double string quartet, but Mendelssohn eschewed the option for deft interplay to focus on the visceral impact of four pairs of instruments with all the possibilities for contrapuntal intricacy and massed ensemble which this offers. It was a measure of this account that both of these aspects were equally in evidence – whether in the sudden sparseness of texture that falls across the development prior to its surging transition into the reprise, or constantly changing textural emphasis that defines the slow movement’s twin themes. Nor was there any falling-off of impetus during the latter two movements – the scherzo unfolding as a marvel of airborne lightness and quizzical humour, while remaining in constant anticipation such as the finale balances unerringly with an unceasing momentum that carries allusions to its predecessors headily in its wake towards the exhilarating coda.
Whereas Mendelssohn at 16 was uninhibited in his tackling of the medium, Enescu at 19 was comparatively in earnest when his Octet (1900) brought the questing harmonic and dextrous contrapuntal thinking of his early music to its climax. Acclaimed by his peers, its daunting complexity and emotional fervency meant no public performance took place until almost a decade after completion. Several transcriptions for string orchestra have emerged, and even today it is not unknown for hearings of the original to be presided over by a conductor.
Not that the present account was in need of any such assistance. Mendelssohn had already hinted at greater unity through long-term thematic links, which Enescu takes much further by making his first movement an extended exposition such as is ‘developed’ across its two successors before the finale brings intensified reprise and climactic apotheosis. Interesting that the composer stated a preference for thematic clarity over textural definition whenever the piece was played, in which respect the present reading could hardly have been bettered. Risks there were aplenty – the sudden acceleration towards the end of the first movement prior to its poignant coda, for instance, or the contrast between the scherzo’s driving outer sections and its languorous trios – but these were finely drawn into an ongoing continuity which proceeded via a raptly eloquent slow movement to a finale whose high-flown rhetoric is channelled into a culmination, an augmentation of the work’s opening theme propelled by an elemental waltz motion, that Enescu arguably never surpassed in terms of sheer panache.
An exceptional account of a still-startling work (and let no-one suppose the combining of the Marwood-van Keulen-Power-Lester grouping with the Heath Quartet led to any imbalance in terms of soloist/ensemble balance). A pity there seems to be no comparable piece to extend the sequence proportionally (Shostakovich’s Two Pieces, 1926, might have made a pertinent foil if placed between the larger items), yet the resultant equilibrium of the Mendelssohn and Enescu makes hearing them directly in parallel its own justification.