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8.570488 - MENDELSSOHN: String Quintets (Complete)
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Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809-1847)
String Quintets


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, Heine’s ticket of admission to European culture, 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.

Mendelssohn’s early gifts, manifested in a number of directions, included marked musical precocity, both as a player 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 in Berlin 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 4th November 1847, six months after the death of his gifted and beloved sister Fanny.

Mendelssohn’s precocious talent was exhibited once more in 1826. During the previous year he had completed his first opera and the Octet. 1826 brought not only his Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream but also the first of his two string quintets. The String Quintet in A major, Op. 18, scored, like Mozart’s, for two violas, opens with a sonata-form movement. The principal subject is entrusted to the first violin and the cello, with livelier figuration, initiates the transition to the secondary material, at first in E major, the dominant key, and then, unusually, in the relative minor, F sharp minor. The exposition is repeated, to be followed by the development, which introduces rapider triplet figuration and a semiquaver passage marked con fuoco. A false recapitulation leads to the recapitulation proper, which omits important elements of the exposition. The movement ends with a coda. The Scherzo originally formed the second movement, with an F sharp minor Minuet as the third movement, including a trio section with canonic imitation. The death from consumption in 1832 of the young violinist Eduard Rietz, to whom the Octet and Violin Sonata, Op. 4, had been dedicated, caused Mendelssohn to write a slow movement Intermezzo, as a tribute to his friend. Rietz, a pupil of his father and of Rode, had joined the Berlin court orchestra in 1819, at the age of seventeen, later becoming leader. Disagreements with the new autocratic Generalmusikdirektor Spontini had led to his leaving the orchestra in 1825 and, the following year, establishing the Berlin Philharmonic Society, the amateur orchestra that he led for Mendelssohn’s revival of Bach’s St Matthew Passion. Marked Andante sostenuto and in F major, the new second movement of the quintet starts with a characteristic descending figure that retains importance throughout. The D minor Scherzo starts with a semiquaver fugal subject from the second viola, and the movement, as it develops, is marked by its use of counterpoint. The quintet ends with a rapid Allegro vivace, in which the principal theme, first heard from the first violin, plays a leading part, while other episodes provide a contrast.

The String Quintet in B flat major, Op. 87, was written in 1845, but published posthumously. This suggests that the work as we have it may not have represented Mendelssohn’s last word on the composition. It is scored, again, for two violas, and divides the burden more equably between all five instruments. The first movement opens with the first violin statement of the principal theme, to which urgency is added in the tremolo accompaniment. There is a relaxation of tension in the second subject and the thematic material is developed in a central section, where the rising dotted arpeggio figure of the first subject has a constant presence. The second violin opens the recapitulation, soon passing the main theme to the first. The G minor second movement, marked Andante scherzando, treads delicately and includes a contrasting G major section with melodic interest initially in the first viola. This is followed by a moving D minor slow movement, finally modulating to D major. The last movement, with the direction Allegro molto vivace, seems to have caused Mendelssohn some dissatisfaction, and was perhaps the reason for his apparent unwillingness to have the work published. It is in sonata-rondo form, finding due place for a contrapuntal element in a contrasting episode.

Keith Anderson

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