Mendelssohn: String Quintets, Op. 18 and 87
Mendelssohn: String Quintets, Op. 18 and 87. G. Henle Verlag urtext, $22.95 score; $45.95 parts.
One still hears superficial judgments of Felix Mendelssohn’s music, and they can be traced to romanticized interpretations of his work tending toward the overly sentimental. Only recently, especially since the 2009 bicentennial of his birth, has there been a revival of interest in his works and a reappraisal of his originality and greatness. He was a much-feted star in his lifetime, but the complete suppression of his music within the Nazi regime’s sphere of influence in the mid-20th century triggered a subsequent decline and neglect of his music.
His privileged upper-middle-class upbringing in a Berlin banking family hardly fit in with the 19th-century image of the struggling, tortured artist. Mendelssohn was a precocious talent whom composer Robert Schumann fittingly named “the Mozart of the 19th century.” The influence of Schumann’s boy-prodigy predecessor is apparent in Mendelssohn’s clarity and adherence to classical form and traditions. His indebtedness also to Bach and Handel is seen in contrapuntal and fugal writing (for instance, the double canon in the Minuet).
Mendelssohn’s chamber music plays a relatively small part in his prodigious output. However, by age 15 he had written 13 string symphonies, a string quartet, three piano quartets, violin and viola sonatas, and a remarkable string sextet. His best-known work in the genre, the outstandingly popular Octet in Eb, Op. 20, was written in his 16th year for his beloved violin teacher Eduard Rietz. For sheer bravura and craftsmanship, it was hard to beat, but at 19, Mendelssohn penned his first string quintet, Op. 18 (in the same year as the Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture, 1826). Deeply affected by Rietz’s death in 1832, Mendelssohn exchanged the Menuetto movement for a more sombre Andante Sostenuto, and sent it to the publisher in this form. Both movements are printed here.
Written 19 years later near the end of his short life, the second quintet, in Bb major, Op. 87, was published only after the composer’s death at 39. Numerous unauthorised entries had found their way into performances; however, a thorough examination of the autograph has allowed Henle to return the work to its original form, together with a detailed commentary.
Henle’s exemplary publication of these seriously underrated works will no doubt lead to a more informed assessment of Mendelssohn’s work and personality and to more classically oriented interpretations of these delightful works.
Given Mendelssohn’s penchant for self editing, interpreting the composer’s final wishes in regard to his work can be difficult. This edition has left no stone unturned in its attention to scholarly detail, sourcing multiple copies of each work, including autographs. Henle’s crystal-clear printing in the handy 9½ x 6½ inch book-size study score is a bonus in rehearsal, and the parts are spaciously laid out with painstaking attention to clarity and detail. The score and parts for both quintets are just under $70—well worth buying.
This Henle edition is a bonanza for violists looking to augment their meagre two-viola quintet repertoire. These masterful quintets rightfully belong alongside those of Mozart and Brahms, deserving closer acquaintance. They will surely gladden chamber musicians’ hearts for their sheer freshness and élan, crisp and brilliant scherzos, and haunting melodies.