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8.557270 - MENDELSSOHN / BRUCH: String Octets
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Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809-1847): Octet in E flat major, Op. 20 (1825)
Max Bruch (1838-1920): Octet in B flat major, Op. posth. (1920)

 

Born in Hamburg in 1809, eldest son of the banker Abraham Mendelssohn and grandson of the great Jewish thinker Moses Mendelssohn, Felix Mendelssohn, who took the additional name Bartholdy on his baptism as a Christian, was brought up in Berlin, where his family settled in 1812. Here he enjoyed the wide cultural opportunities that his family offered, through their own interests and connections.

Manifested in a number of directions, Mendelssohn's early gifts, included marked musical precocity, both as a composer and as a performer, at a remarkably early age. These exceptional abilities received every encouragement from his family and their friends, although Abraham Mendelssohn entertained early doubts about the desirability of his son taking the profession of musician. These reservations were in part put to rest by the advice of Cherubini in Paris and by the increasing signs of the boy's musical abilities and interests.

Mendelssohn's early manhood brought the opportunity to travel, as far south as Naples and as far north as The Hebrides, with Italy and Scotland both providing the inspiration for later symphonies. His career involved him in the Lower Rhine Festival in Düsseldorf and a period as city director of music, followed, in 1835, by appointment as conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig. Here he was able to continue the work he had started in Berlin six years earlier, when he had conducted a revival of Bach's St Matthew Passion. Leipzig was to provide a degree of satisfaction that he could not find in Berlin, where he returned at the invitation of King Friedrich Wilhelm IV in 1841. In Leipzig once more, in 1843, he established a new Conservatory, spending his final years there, until his death at the age of 38 on 4 November 1847, six months after the death of his gifted and beloved sister Fanny.

Mendelssohn owed his early training as a violinist to his teacher and friend Eduard Rietz. Born in Berlin in 1802, the son of a violinist in the Berlin Court Orchestra, Rietz had joined the same orchestra in 1819, leaving it in 1825, after disagreements with the conductor Spontini, to found the Berlin Philharmonic Society the following year, leading its semi-amateur orchestra in concerts with the Berlin Singakademie. This was the ensemble that he led in Mendelssohn's famous revival of Bach's St Matthew Passion in 1829, an enterprise in which he and his cellist brother Julius had collaborated by helping to write out the parts for the performance. Mendelssohn dedicated to Rietz his Violin Concerto in D minor, the Octet and the Violin Sonata in F minor, Op. 4. Rietz died of consumption in 1832 and Mendelssohn then dedicated to his memory the slow movement of his String Quintet, Op. 18.

The Octet in E flat major, in which Mendelssohn himself on occasion took the second viola part, was written in 1825 and immediately precedes in order of composition the concert overture A Midsummer Night's Dream, with which the Scherzo has obvious affinities. It was conceived in orchestral terms and is an astonishing feat of virtuosity from a sixteen-year-old, innovative in instrumentation and in its treatment of the instruments. Considerable demands are made of the first violin, in a part written originally for Rietz, for whom the work was intended as a birthday present. Much use is made of the ascending figuration of the first subject, which is fully exploited, while a secondary theme makes its appearance, at first in sixths between the fourth violin and first viola. The repeated exposition is duly followed by a central development, a chance for changes of texture, dynamic variation and changes of mood. The music mounts to a climax of largely unanimous activity before the first theme returns in recapitulation. The C minor slow movement has been variously analysed. It is opened by violas and cellos, answered by the violins, as the principal melodic material unwinds, in what might seem the first subject of a modified sonata-form movement. Its ethereal beauty is followed by the G minor Scherzo, seemingly, according to the composer's sister Fanny, inspired by lines from Goethe's Faust, the Walpurgis Night Dream, 'Clouds and mist pass / it grows bright above. / Air in the bushes and wind in the reeds / - and all is dispersed' (Wolkenzug und Nebelflor / erhellen sich von oben. / Luft im Laub und Wind im Rohr / - und alles ist zerstoben). The busy figuration is continued in the final fugal Presto, its principal subject mounting through the instruments, from the initial entry of the second cello. The perpetual motion of the movement nevertheless allows the addition of other thematic elements and explicit references to the preceding Scherzo.

Today Max Bruch is generally known only as the composer of works for the violin. In addition to the Violin Concerto in G minor, the popularity of which continues, and, to the annoyance of the composer, eventually overshadowed much of his other work, we hear from time to time the Scottish Fantasy and the Second Violin Concerto. The fact that Bruch, in his day, was famous for his large-scale choral works is forgotten. Between 1870 and 1900 there were numerous performances of works such as Odysseus, Frithjof or Das Lied von der Glocke, earning for the composer a reputation that momentarily outshone that of Brahms.

Max Bruch was born in Cologne on 6 January, 1838, in the same year as Bizet. He studied there with Ferdinand Hiller and Carl Reinecke. Extended journeys at home and abroad as a student were followed by a longer stay in Mannheim, where his opera Loreley was performed in 1863, a work based on a libretto by Geibel and originally intended for Mendelssohn, which brought him to the attention of a wider public. Bruch's first official appointments were as Kapellmeister, first in Koblenz from 1865 to 1867, and then in Sondershausen until 1870, followed by a longer stay in Berlin and a period from 1873 to 1878 in Bonn, when he dedicated himself to composition. After a short time as director of the Sternscher Gesangverein in Berlin, in 1880 he was appointed conductor of the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, where he succeeded Julius Benedict, leaving England in 1883 to become director of the Orchesterverein in Breslau. In 1891 he moved finally to Berlin and took over master-classes in composition, Respighi being one of his pupils. He retired in 1911 to devote himself to composition, although now essentially writing in a traditional style that seemed to have passed. He died in Berlin on 2 October, 1920.

Bruch's Octet in B flat major, one of his last works, was written in January and February 1920, seven months before the composer's death, and apparently a reworking of a recently composed string quintet. It is seemingly modelled on Mendelssohn's Octet, although the later substitution of a double bass for the second cello made the work into a possible item in string orchestra repertoire, described then as Concerto for String Orchestra. The Octet was played to the composer by the violinist Willy Hess and his pupils.

The tranquil principal theme of the opening Allegro moderato is entrusted to the first viola, continued by the first violin and leading to a second subject of more forceful contour. The central development of this broadly sonata-form movement returns at first to the mood of the opening, with other earlier material explored before a suggested return of the first theme, postponed until its final return in a more grandiose form, after a unison climax, as in Mendelssohn's Octet. The slow movement almost seems to recall Schumann's Piano Quintet in the sinister suggestion of its E flat minor opening, before the entry of the first violin with the principal theme of the movement. The secondary thematic material, in B major and marked Andante con molto di moto, is introduced by the first violin with an accompaniment that includes the plucked notes of the first cello. The original key and theme returns with the first and third violins in octaves over a more elaborate accompaniment, and after a brief transitional passage in B major the second theme returns, now in E flat major, bringing the movement to a serene end. The ominous opening of the last movement is soon contradicted at the entry of the first violin. There is contrast of mood and key in what follows, with an effectively lyrical secondary theme introduced by the first cello, aided by the second viola, later to return in the appropriate final key in a movement that in other respects has something of Mendelssohn's perpetual motion and lightness of texture about it.

Keith Anderson


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