The Bartholdy Quintet Plays Mendelssohn

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MENDELSSOHN: String Quintets Nos. 1 & 2. Original 3rd mvmt of No. 1. Alternate 4th mvmt of No. 2 (arr. Julius Rietz) / Bartholdy Quintet: Ulf Schneider, Anke Dill, vln; Volker Jacobsen, Barbara Westpahl, vla; Gustav Rivinius, cel / Avi 8553030

This CD is somewhat indicative of the complaints I made in my previous post, The Sad State of Classical Music Today: a modern-day chamber ensemble who not only devotes most or all of their time to old, dead composers, but in fact is actually named after the old dead composer they are playing here. Not that I have any objection to Mendelssohn’s music; on the contrary, I admire him tremendously; but he and other composers of his era are only a part of my musical feasts, not the main course.

Yet I was interested to hear these performances because, although I have all of Mendelssohn’s String Quartets in my collection, I did not have the String Quintets. In the liner notes, violist Volker Jacobsen states:

Oftentimes Mendelssohn made extensive changes between the completion of a composition and the first printing (sometimes a period of several years), including cuts. Viewed from the outside, it is not always clear why. It is also questionable whether it really was Mendelssohn himself who initiated and authorized these changes. This therefore poses the question: which version should be given priority, the autograph or the first print?

Recently, the Henle Publishing Company brought out a new edition, strictly based on Mendelssohn’s original manuscript. Only proven interventions by the composer for printing are clarified. Much of this is at first surprising and unfamiliar. Just like our listeners, who have probably heard these works often and taken them to their hearts, we as interpreters are also subject to our personal listening habits, which are not always easy to question.

In addition, we have recorded the Minuetto, originally intended as the Intermezzo in the A-Major Quintet (Mendelssohn was yet undecided if it should be second or third in the sequence of movements.) This movement later had to yield to the emotionally dense Intermezzo he wrote under the impression of the passing of Eduard Rietz, the father of the above-mentioned Julius.

So there you have it, and this is why they included the above-mentioned movement as well as am alternate last movement of Quintet No. 2 arranged by Julius Rietz.

Unlike many of today’s string groups, the Bartholdy Quintet plays in the kind of style collectors of old LPs will recognize (note, for instance, the downward portamento near the beginning of the first quintet’s second movement). Their phrasing is more rounded than sharply accented and their tones warm and rich, yet the fast passages do not lack for rhythmic acuity. In a way, they reminded me of the excellent Alexander String Quartet which plays in a similar fashion. One difference is the sound quality of the CD, which although giving some space around the instruments is not as reverberant as the Alexander Quartet’s recordings.

Naturally, the earlier quintet is sweeter and more charming than the second, but in both one hears the underlying flaw of older music: too much time is wasted on the presentation of Tunes before one gets to the development, and even there Mendelssohn carefully avoids edgy dissonances in the manner of Beethoven (though there are a few in the first movement around the 6:30 mark for about a minute or so). Most of it (listen to the second movement in particular) is sweetness and light, and the Bartholdy Quintet plays it in a jolly, affectionate style. Nonetheless, I did like the moto perpetuo third movement with its continuously moving parts within the ensemble. The last movement, though jolly to hear, is pretty formulaic and concludes with a “ta-da!” ending.

If the Bartholdy Quintet isn’t sure why Mendelssohn changed his mind on the third movement, I can tell them. Although an interesting piece in the minor, with some quite good development, it didn’t have the fascination or pizzazz of the original third movement, BUT I personally would include it in all future performances as the fourth movement because it is in the minor, which provides better contrast, and is not nearly as jolly. I really liked this piece, however; it is creative and interesting. Perhaps they may wish to play it between the final third and fourth movements, making a five-movement quintet out of it.

As I expected, the second quintet, written much later (Op. 87), is in Mendelssohn’s mature style and is a far more dramatic and interesting piece. Here he does indeed remind one of Beethoven, from his middle period at least, with figures and harmonies that shift and change at a moment’s notice. This is the Mendelssohn I really admire, and they play the piece with great commitment. In contrast to the first quintet, there is scarcely a wasted note or gesture in the first movement, which moves like greased lightning and doesn’t try to seduce us with pretty melodies. At a little after the five-minute mark, Mendelssohn uses fast, surprising crescendi in short phrases that literally pounce on the listener. This is truly great music, regardless of era.

The second movement, an “Allegretto scherzando,” is somewhat more melodic but again written in a much more terse, condensed style. Even the string of trills that he throws in are not merely decorative, but have an essentially rhythmic function. Later on, he incorporates a very clever string of falling chromatics. There’s something about this movement that reminds me more of Dvořák than of Mendelssohn—and yes, that’s a compliment to Mendelssohn.

The third movement is moody and restless, written in the minor and not at all exploiting the beauty of sound that five strings can make but, rather, using a restless melodic line. A bit later, he has the cello play the classical equivalent of a “walking” bass, which later still plays its own edgy rhythms beneath the four upper strings. Again, this is quite an achievement. At one point, the strings play shuddering tremolos. It’s almost like a funeral dirge interrupted by bouts of hysteria and weeping. By contrast, the fourth and last movement releases all of these tensions in a jolly finale, as if to say, “Yes, what preceded this was dramatic, but I was only acting!” Whether or not you consider this an effective finish to such an inherently dramatic piece, however, is up to you. I didn’t really think it fit, any more than I think the last movement of Beethoven’s Third Symphony really fits either. There are, however, a few surprising shifts of key later on in this piece.

The alternate final movement starts out in similarly jolly fashion, but to my ears isn’t scored quite as richly as the final version. Some passages here are moved around and a few altered, but to be honest it’s not significantly different from the final version.

Nonetheless, this CD is definitely worth getting if you’re a Mendelssohn fan and don’t already own these quintets. Excellent performances and, in the second quintet, excellent music.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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