Mendelssohn: Octet (CD review)

Also, Piano Sextet. I Solisti Filarmonici Italiani. CPO 777 524-2.

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) wrote his Octet and Sextet while still in his mid teens, a remarkable feat for any composer at any age. But Mendelssohn was no ordinary composer, being a pianist, organist, conductor, and child prodigy besides a writer of music well loved to this day. To do justice to the composer's two early works on this disc, I Solisti Filarmonici Italiani play Mendelssohn's Octet and Sextet in what they describe as a composite of modern and period styles, using gut strings, mid-nineteenth century bows, and a 1928 Steinway grand piano. Whatever, the results are delightful.

Mendelssohn wrote the Octet for Strings in E flat major, Op. 20 in 1825, and critics generally consider it the man's first genuine masterpiece. The surprising thing to me a few minutes into the piece was not the period instruments or the hybrid style but how closely the first movement resembles the performance by members of the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in their celebrated 1968 Decca-Argo recording. Solisti Filarmonici Italiani match the older group almost note for note, with close to the same infectious charm. This means they take the opening Allegro at a fleet yet graceful pace, building a pleasant, festive foundation for the rest of the work.

It is in the slow Andante that Mendelssohn's idea of the piece being played like an orchestral symphony comes to the fore. Solisti Filarmonici Italiani play the softest and loudest passages with greater contrast than one would normally find from a chamber group, making the music more dramatic than usual. Then the third-movement Allegro leggierissimo fairly zips along, leading to the concluding Presto, which follows suit at almost the same tempo. While there is no doubt the music is among Mendelssohn's greatest, it still shows a youthful exuberance that I Solisti Filarmonici Italiani seem eager to exploit.

The Sextet for Piano and Strings in D major, Op. 110 (1824) preceded the Octet by a year but didn't see publication until after the composer's death. It is slightly darker and more sedate than the Octet, and as the name suggests, it puts the piano front and center, the instrument dominating the others at all points.  Solisti Filarmonici Italiani play it with the same vivacity with which they approach the Octet, the Adagio flowing along lovingly, the Minuetto exuding a Schubertian flair, and the final Allegro vivace full of spunk and high good cheer.

The recording, made in May, 2009, may be close up, but it's also reasonably warm and comfortable, at the same time admitting a good deal of detail and air. The sound is quite realistic, if a tad rough from the proximity of the period instruments. The enthusiasm one hears in the audio scheme benefits the joy of the music enormously.

JJP

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For over 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me--point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, as of right now it comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio High Current preamplifier, AVA FET Valve 550hc or Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa