Mendelssohn: Octet; Boccherini: Quintet Op.37 No. 37

Academy of St. Martin in the Fields / Neville Marriner

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Mendelssohn: Octet; Boccherini: Quintet Op.37 No. 37 Review

by James Manheim

This recording of Mendelssohn's Octet for strings, Op. 20, and Boccherini's String Quintet in C major, Op. 57/7, was originally released in 1968. The only complaint to be made against its re-presentation here is that the notes don't give any information as to how this rather unusual recording came to be made. How did it happen that members of an orchestra happened to essay these chamber works? Where and when was the recording made? A bit of context would heighten the enjoyment, but as to the recording's qualifications as "legendary" there is no argument. The Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields players (Neville Marriner on violin among them) are superb in the young Mendelssohn's dense, rich, but rather unwieldy octet. In the quick, programmatic scherzo, depicting a Goethe quatrain describing a sky rapidly changing in high winds, the ensemble is sharp, tight, and razor-wire tense. In the harmonically ambitious slow movement, they weight the harmonic areas perfectly; the E flat major section in the center of the movement, introduced in the remote key of E flat minor, is rhapsodic and passionate. The pairing of works is fascinating, with the Boccherini quintet (for two violins, viola, and two cellos) an especially nice choice that was very little known in 1968 and still not terribly familiar. Yet Mendelssohn must have known it; the two works share an expansive conception of structure that doesn't owe much to Haydn or Beethoven but was in the air in the works of other composers from around 1800. The group's presentation of Boccherini's opening movement, which almost immediately departs from the home key of C major, is masterful; music that could have (and has) seemed to wander instead takes on a light, ethereal air. The Grave slow movement is also gentle and extremely ingratiating, setting up the rondo -- one of Boccherini's folkish, rhythmically vigorous finales -- for special emphasis and a good deal of foot-tapping. The high-tech remastering vaunted here does its job; the sound matches the standards of a well-engineered LP from the late 1960s. This is a recording that was fresh in its own time and has lost none of its freshness today.

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