Saturday 4 April 2020

Reviews: Octets from Mendelssohn, Enescu and Berio; Bruckner, Romantic Symphony

Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809-47), Octet in E flat major, Op.20

George Enescu (1881-1955), Octet for Strings in C major, Op.7

Gringolts Quartet and Meta4.  BIS

It's always a joy to hear this Mendelssohn signature piece, the one that claimed him a place amongst the great composers of all time and which embedded his ability to create elfin music. It is the third movement where this trademark appears, inspired by Goethe's Faust, about Walpurgis Night, 'Trailing cloud, and misted trees... Breeze in leaves, and wind in reeds.' No philosophical depth here though, just the transportation to an aetherial world of spirits. When he started to write the octet, Mendelssohn was sixteen. It is not possible to find a work of such maturity amongst other composers of similar age, including Mozart, to whom the octet's final movement refers in its fugal style, surely inspired by the final movement of Mozart's 'Jupiter' symphony. With this octet, Mendelssohn leaves behind the classical world and enters that of the Romantic.

Contrasted is the Enescu octet, which, as Mendelssohn journied from classical to romantic, Enescu moves through the portal from romanticism to modernism. A first premier of his octet was attempted in 1900 but abandoned after five rehearsals, when described by the conductor's son as 'horribly beautiful'. To modern ears, the adjective can be dropped, unless it is to be used to emphasise the inhuman depth of its beauty. Nine years later, the piece was performed in public. Supposedly written to encompass sonata form, each of the four movements makes this happen - the first movement is first subject, the last is recapitulation. Clearly the two young quartets who combine have a sympathy for the angular nature of the Enescu octet.

Luciano Berio (1925-2003), Cries of London for eight voices

Norwegian Soloists Choir.  BIS

Continuing the octet theme, this CD moves us now closer to our own times (composed, 1974-76). The Italian-born Berio was working in the period of experiment during which he was a pioneer in the making of electronic music. Many experiments in music from this period failed; be not concerned, this octet was a great success.

Written originally for the King's Singers, Cries of London references madrigals and part-songs often featured by the 'King's' and their cabaret performances. The vocal textures lie well on the ear and I even smiled at the repetitive use of the cry for "money, money, money", overlapping and urgent. If you would like a piece from this musical period to get to grips with, here is your opportunity: these are the cries of London Town, cry of cries, come money to me. Perhaps thereafter you may be tempted by the other piece on this CD, 'Coro for voices and instruments'. You won't be disappointed.

Anton Bruckner's Fourth Symphony, 'The Romantic'
WAB, 104.

Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks., conductor, Mariss Jansons.  BR Klassik

Finally, this month, listen to this recording of the huge Bruckner symphony, 'The Romantic', all 72 minutes of it. No-one in the history of western music has managed to sustain such expression, orchestration genius and inventiveness without inviting flagging focus. This is what classical music is all about. 'The Romantic' was the piece of Bruckner's breakthrough, premiered on February 20th, 1881, after his symphonic works to that date had largely been rejected.

"Music opens to man an unknown realm, a world that has nothing in common with the outer sensual one that surrounds him", E.T.A. Hoffman