Jasper and Jupiter Quartets
The Jasper and Jupiter Quartets performing the Mendelssohn Octet

You could say that the union of the Jupiter and Jasper String Quartets in a new CD (Marquis) is a family affair. One member of the Jasper is a younger brother of two members of the Jupiter, there is a marriage within the ranks of each quartet, other members were apartment mates at college.

They must have had high old times playing chamber music at friends-and-family gatherings — and I’ll bet one of their favorites was the Mendelssohn Octet. Anytime string players get together at summer chamber music festivals anywhere, the Mendelssohn Octet is bound to come up sooner or later. The piece is a miracle of high spirits and inspired material — for my ears, the greatest piece of music ever written by a teenager (he was 16), and that includes Mozart, Schubert, Rossini, or whomever you care to name. It gives everyone something to do with its symphonic independence of all eight voices, and if you can imagine a family of musicians babbling and interacting with one another, Mendelssohn is the perfect vehicle.

  

That said, there is not much that makes this fine interpretation stand out from the many other fine interpretations out there. Tempos are right on the dot, there is vigor, enthusiasm, perhaps some aggressive forwardness in some of the phrasing, the right feathery touch and a few no-longer-hidden details in the incredible Scherzo, thanks to revealingly detailed sonics. I compared this with the celebrated Marlboro Festival recording from around 1966 — one that featured the entire Guarneri Quartet, plus a member each from the Budapest and Juilliard Quartets and a couple of star chamber soloists — and they run a close race, with an edge to Marlboro for finesse but not much else. On another plane altogether are the transcriptions for full string orchestra; a special favorite of mine is an early digital LP of Zubin Mehta leading the strings of the Israel Philharmonic that was inexplicably never issued on CD in the U.S.

Of the two contemporary works that fill out the CD, Dan Visconti’s Eternal Breath counts as another family affair, for the parents of the three members of the Freivogel clan in both quartets commissioned it. The idea behind it is an “eternal breath” that is passed from one generation to another and as marriage expand the family core. This is expressed in vaguely hushed tones marked by little downward portamentos, eventually gaining in volume and sustain before exploding in a slippery mess that peters out into a ghostly coda. The piece is drenched with influences of the Indian subcontinent, capped by the drone of a shruti box (a harmonium-like Indian instrument) in the final fade.

Closing the disc is an early (1996) Osvaldo Golijov piece named Last Round that is meant to be a tribute to Astor Piazzolla (whose centenary coincidentally happens to fall this month), as well as a boxing reference. I like the latter idea better, especially the brawling first movement where the eight players, plus a double bass, slug it out in a Bartók-meets-Revueltas-meets-Piazzolla battle royale before things power down to a reflective finale.

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