The Joyful Energy and Affecting Lyricism of Mendelssohn’s and Enescu’s Youthful Octets

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mendelssohn, Enescu: Anthony Marwood (violin), Isabelle van Keulen (violin) Lawrence Power (viola), Richard Lester (cello), The Heath String Quartet [Oliver Heath & Cerys Jones (violins), Gary Pomeroy (viola), Christopher Murray (cello)], Wigmore Hall, London, 7.10.2014 (CS)

Mendelssohn: Octet in Eb Op. 20
Enescu: String Octet in C Op.7


The opportunity to hear a live performance of one string octet is a rare treat, but to hear two is an absolute luxury!  In this exciting concert at the Wigmore Hall, violinist Anthony Marwood brought together friends and fellow musicians to present the string octets of Felix Mendelssohn and George Enescu – works which are separated by 75 years but which share an impassioned combination of joyful energy and affecting lyricism.

Both works were, astonishingly, created by the respective composers when they were still in their teens, and there was certainly a sense of youthful exuberance and confidence in the ensemble’s performance of Mendelssohn’s Octet. The first movement opened with flamboyance and drama, and a strong dash of the ‘fire’ indicated by the composer: Allegro moderato, ma con fuoco.  The musical gestures are grand and vibrant, and Marwood and his fellow players displayed an infectious exuberance, Marwood’s expanding arpgeggios rising theatrically above the rich oscillations and syncopations beneath.  But, Mendelssohn’s material is also full of contrasts and variety, and there was delicacy and precision too, almost immediately, in the staccato ‘chattering’ in the inner voices which is answered by the outer parts’ brief legato motif.  Throughout, while the busy, full ensemble passages embraced vigour and passion, the quieter passages possessed real elegance and Marwood’s violin soared with abundant tone and beauty.

At times, I felt that balance was a little top-bottom heavy, with the middle voices occasionally failing to come through – although, this may have just been a consequence of where I was seated in the Hall.  Indeed, Cerys Jones made the floating second subject sing sweetly and calmly – who but Mendelssohn would allow the fourth violin to introduce the second subject!  And, Lawrence Power was a strong unifying voice in the centre, blending warmly with Marwood in the development of the Allegro moderato – in which a pleasingly airy texture was created as the pairs of voices explored the second subject through roving harmonies – and introducing the Andante’s opening melody with lovely phrasing and timbre.  In the latter, the ever-changing textures and sonorities were richly exploited; pizzicati rang resonantly, semiquaver runs slipped by smoothly and rippling arpeggios had grace, while the repeated notes of the main theme formed a concentrated core which built organically through the movement.

The players were not afraid to take risks in the Scherzo, at times their bows scarcely touching the strings during the leggierissimo scurrying, creating a sense of breathlessness and magic which transported us to the nocturnal woods of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  The players’ obvious pleasure was infectious.  But, barely had the sparkle dust of the ravishing, diminishing murmurs of the closing rise vanished, than cellist Christopher Murray had launched ferociously into the Presto’s furious fugue, with an explosion of energy and at a dizzying, hair-raising tempo which did not relent until the final bravura cadence.  The players relished the complexity of the youthful composer’s invention, powerfully creating the symphonic orchestral sound that Mendelssohn desired.  The virtuosities of the music were effortlessly dispatched, especially by Marwood who was a portrait of controlled expertise throughout, and the dynamism that the ensemble generated was thrillingly satisfying.

Mendelssohn’s Octet did not spawn many successors – although at the end of his life Bruch composed a wonderful Octet which replaces one of the celli with a double bass further expanding the registral breadth.  But, one who did take up the challenge of composing for such forces was the nineteen-year-old Romanian composer George Enescu, whose Octet combines an indulgent late-Romanticism with modern, neo-classical contrapuntalism, with a dash of folky ‘bite’ thrown in.  Enescu’s composition shares Mendelssohn’s sense of huge scale: indeed, the composer remarked, ‘No engineer putting his first suspension bridge across a river can have agonized more than I did as I gradually filled my manuscript paper with notes’!

The opening movement Très modéré – (in fact, Enescu’s prefatory note indicates that the four movements should be linked to form a ‘single symphonic movement’) – commenced with an expansive statement of the unison theme, shared by all the players except Murray, whose C-string semi-quavers provided a stirring foundation for the impassioned mass announcement.  Although Enescu suggested that the ‘contrapuntal artifices’ should not be emphasised at the expense of melodic and thematic values, Marwood and his players articulated the complex interplay of the canonic second subject with clarity and vigour, while still acknowledging the suavity of the folk-inflected melody.  There is a wealth of melodic material, and the players gave each theme a unique colour and character; in contrast to Mendelssohn’s Octet which, despite the composer’s structural variety and skill, does give the first violin a dominant role, here the eight voices were equal contributors to the musical arguments and evolutions, creating a quasi-Brahmsian intensity and interchange.  But, there were quiet moments of restraint too, and Powers’ pizzicato-accompanied viola melody presented a touching contrast.

Perhaps taking his cue from Mendelssohn, Enescu presents a massive fugue in the second movement, Très fougueux; here, the leaping subject fizzed with vigour, the eastern European melodic tinges adding extra frisson.  One of the highlights of the evening was the exquisite Lentement in which warm textures enigmatically unfolded.  The violins’ melodies were intensely declaimed above slow, fragmentary chords on the lower strings; pizzicato passages were eloquently shaped and the complex, sometimes surprising structurally turns were commandingly handled.

If we had drifted into mysterious, nocturnal realms in the third movement, we were rudely awoken by the Mouvement de Valse bien rhthmé – a manic waltz in which the inexorable momentum at times threatened to spiral into hyperactivity, even madness!   Enescu’s Octet is a challenging work, for players and audience alike, but there was no lessening of the ensemble’s energetic engagement with the music or the listeners’ rapt concentration – a testament to the mastery and expressiveness of Marwood and his players.

This concert evolved from chamber music projects presented at Peasmarch Chamber Music Festival – of which Marwood and Lester are the Artistic Directors – in 2009 and 2012.  The easy, open manner in which the players ‘conversed’ certainly conveyed their shared delight in the music as they stirred rich emotions; at times, especially during the Mendelssohn, it was as if we were watching a private music gathering of friends, and it was a privilege to see and hear such joyful music-making.

Claire Seymour

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