Notes and Editorial Reviews
Octet in E?.
String Quartet No. 11,
Zubin Mehta, cond;
Christoph Dohnányi, cond;
Israel PO Strings;
DECCA ELOQUENCE 4800813 (56:10)
When originally recorded in 1979, this claimed to be the first international release on CD of Mendelssohn’s own string orchestra arrangement of his famous Octet. But there had
been others, both before it—a 1974 recording on Philips with I Musici—and after it—the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields on Chandos, the Australian Chamber Orchestra on Sony, and the Nash Ensemble on Wigmore Live. The “possibly” is equivocation on my part, because I can’t say for sure if these other orchestral presentations feature Mendelssohn’s own arrangement, Toscanini’s, to which the conductor added a string bass part, or they are simply inflations of the original eight string parts played by an augmented string ensemble. I have the Chandos recording, but it doesn’t specify the version used.
In any case, regular readers will already know of my general dislike of arrangements, even when made by the original composer who, more often than not, did so at the urging of his publisher in an effort to increase sales. In the case of Mendelssohn’s Octet, however, I make an exception. The piece as originally scored—two first violins, two seconds, two violas, and two cellos—is effectively a string symphony in all but name anyway, a brilliant
tour de force
that has as much in common with the composer’s juvenile 12 string symphonies as it does with Spohr’s double quartets, which are often said to have been Mendelssohn’s model.
The aforementioned Chandos recording has a harsh, glaring edge to it, and I’ve never cared much for the performance by the ASMF, which much of the time sounds like it’s in overdrive. The current offering with the strings of the Israel Philharmonic is a shade slower, but more important, it sounds more amiable and relaxed. I still prefer the original Octet, but for a string orchestra version this one, led by Zubin Mehta, will do quite nicely.
The sheer wildness and emotional turbulence of Beethoven’s F-Minor Quartet, the “Serioso,” may have been what most appealed to Mahler when he chose it above all others to orchestrate. But then Mahler didn’t have a very high opinion of the string quartet in general, referring to it as “four pathetic little string players.” Respectful of Beethoven, however, he remained exquisitely faithful to the original score, “adding no new music, and generally limiting himself to transferring the solo parts to the corresponding orchestral sections, with the double basses reinforcing the cellos,” this according to note author and
’s Raymond Tuttle. So, if you have a hankering to hear Beethoven’s F-Minor String Quartet pretty much as is, but played by a full complement of strings, here it is in a finely honed performance by the strings of the Vienna Philharmonic under the direction of Christoph Dohnányi in a recording made in 1995.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Works on This Recording
Octet for Strings in E flat major, Op. 20 by Felix Mendelssohn
Israel Philharmonic Orchestra
Written: 1825; Germany
Notes: Arranger: Mendelssohn.
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