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.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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.

Mission Statement

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.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa