Menlo Does a Must-Play Mendelssohn

David Bratman on July 27, 2009
In an ideal musical world, there would be a law: Whenever two string quartet ensembles collaborate on a concert, they must perform Felix Mendelssohn’s Octet for Strings in E-flat, Op. 20. It’s that good a work. The St. Lawrence and Pacifica quartets obliged this dictum before an enraptured Music@Menlo festival audience at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church on Friday.

St. Lawrence cellist Christopher Costanza was absent, called away by the sudden death of his mother-in-law two days earlier. With some rejiggering of personnel and a heroic rehearsal schedule, the show went on as scheduled, with the planned repertoire.

St. Lawrence String Quartet

The Octet is a vigorous, energetic work in almost any hands, these included. St. Lawrence violinist Geoff Nuttall, performing the display role of first violin with an abrupt phrasing, and sometimes an intonation, all his own, cried out the high G’s at the end of the first-movement exposition like a man at the limits of extremity, which is how they should be done. The Pacifica violinists and violist, Simin Ganatra, Sibbi Bernhardsson, and Masumi Per Rostad, faces glinting as if to say “you can’t catch us out” to their opposite numbers across the stage, emitted pizzicato notes with deadly precision. David Finckel — the festival codirector, a member of the immensely distinguished Emerson Quartet, and the ringer cellist brought in to replace Costanza — gave out his solos from the back of the ensemble like a Biblical prophet.

Players enjoy the Mendelssohn Octet because each part is interesting, with many different things to do. In an octet, there are 28 different combinations of two voices, and Mendelssohn must have used most of them. Look at the second theme of the first movement. Mostly a duet for violin and viola, it begins with fourth violin and first viola — here, Bernhardsson and Lesley Robertson — switches to Ganatra and Robertson, then to Scott St. John and Rostad, all within a few bars. Everybody has to stay on their toes, and they did. Each played with a personal accent, making the scoring worth the composer’s trouble.

Excellent as the Octet was, the preceding pieces may have been even better. Mendelssohn’s String Quintet in A, Op. 18, was completed a few months after the Octet, except for the slow Intermezzo, added six years after that. It’s a less busy, more contemplative piece than the Octet. St. John played first violin, accompanied by his St. Lawrence colleagues Nuttall and Robertson, plus Rostad as second violist and Pacifica cellist Brandon Vamos.

The Intermezzo generally forms the heart of the work. In this performance the large first movement took that role. St. John, accompanied by Nuttall, chirping away at a light subsidiary theme, while the others murmured away in the background, was ineffably charming in a way that nothing in the more bluntly performed Octet attempted. The Quintet’s scherzo, by contrast, was positively raucous, with Vamos (another last-minute substitution for Costanza, who was originally intended to perform this part) and Rostad energetically countering Mendelssohn’s reputation for refinement.

Early Works of Promise

The concert began with the Pacifica Quartet playing Beethoven’s B-flat Major Quartet, Op. 18, No. 6. The program note ties this to the Mendelssohn works by calling them all “early masterpieces.” That’s true for a broad enough definition of early. Mendelssohn was all of 16 and 17 when he wrote these pieces, whereas Beethoven began Op. 18 at the age of 27. In the light of his later works, the Op. 18 quartets do look backward to Haydn and Mozart. In this immensely thoughtful performance, however, this work became premonitory.
Pacifica Quartet

The first two movements alternated between a rare, true-pianissimo hush and heavy accents that lent the music a Hungarian, or perhaps Russian, air looking forward to the composer’s “Razumovsky” quartets, Op. 59. The rhythmically ambiguous scherzo was, deliberately, so oddly kiltered that it almost sounded as if it were being played backward. The sad and eerie “La Malinconia” slow introduction to the finale eschewed the earlier hush in favor of an emphasis on its growing dissonance, rendering the alternation between the introduction’s return and the cheerful dance sections into something like the illness/recovery scenario in the central movement of Op. 132.

All this was played with immense care and clarity. (And again, this was a dazzling late substitution, for the St. Lawrence, rather than the Pacifica, was originally scheduled to perform.) I’d already had the privilege of hearing the Pacifica Quartet play the early Mendelssohn quartets last Tuesday, which was outstanding enough. This, on top of it, should convince anyone not to miss the ensemble’s later Mendelssohn installments on July 31 and August 7.

If Beethoven’s Op. 18 looks backward, does Mendelssohn’s Octet? A clue to that may have come from the free preview concert, featuring eight of Music@Menlo’s international program artists — including all four members of the LK String Quartet — playing Louis Spohr’s Double String Quartet in D Minor, Op. 65, composed a couple of years before the Mendelssohn and possibly an inspiration for it. It had much of the warm gentility often attributed to Mendelssohn, especially in the finale’s tumbling figures over pizzicato and tremolo. The overall air, especially in unison passages, was high-Classical of the J.C. Bach school. The young performers made the potentially dull work sparkle.

Also on the preview program was American composer Libby Larsen’s 1994 work Dancing Solo, played with sure-fingered virtuosity by the 27-year-old Quebecois clarinetist Romie de Guise-Langlois. The composer and performer did not intend the cell-phone obbligato that was added to the concert.