With the exception of a handful of works – the miraculous Octet, composed when the composer was just 16, a couple of the string quartets, early and late, and maybe one of the piano trios – Mendelssohn’s chamber music remains too little known. The string quintets, scored for the pairs of violins and violas with a single cello that Mozart opted for in his quintets, are superb examples of what that neglected music can offer.
There are two of them, composed almost 20 years apart. The A major Quintet Op 18 dates from 1826, the year after the Octet, and a year before the first of Mendelssohn’s truly mature string quartets, the A major Op 13. (Through his career, the opus numbers given to Mendelssohn’s works sometimes bear little relation to the order in which they were composed.) Its opening movement has the same youthful buoyancy and effortless lyricism that characterises much of the Op 13 quartet, while its scurrying scherzo recalls the equivalent movement in the Octet. The B flat Quintet Op 87, written in 1845, was his penultimate chamber work and, it seems to me, one of his finest achievements – a score of tremendous scope and surging power with an intense slow movement as its centre of gravity.
Though there are a few moments in the performances by the Doric Quartet and viola player Timothy Ridout when the textures seem muddier than perhaps they need to be, they generally do full justice to both quintets. They give full rein to the easy-going invention of Op 18, while treating its slow intermezzo, Mendelssohn’s 1832 replacement for the original second movement, with almost Beethovenian profundity, and the energy of their account of Op 87 is pretty irresistible, too.
This week’s other pick
Shades, the Manchester Collective’s second release on the Bedroom Community label, is devoted to the two string quartets by Edmund Finnis, the second of which he composed for the group last year. Finnis describes the scores as “some of the most personal and intimate” pieces he has written. “Outcomes of something that I’m incapable of fully expressing with words.” The starting point for the first quartet was a reflection on William Byrd’s setting of a fifth-century hymn that forms the fourth of its five movements, while the second quartet arose out of some recordings of songs that Finnis had composed in his teens, and which he rediscovered when moving house. What the two works have in common is the wonderful refinement of the string writing, its airy lyricism and fragile, touching beauty.