Wigmore Mondays: Elias + Navarra = Mendelssohn Octet

Elias String Quartet (above – Sara Bitlloch, Donald Grant (violins), Robin Ireland (viola), Marie Bitlloch (cello)); Navarra String Quartet (below – Magnus Johnston, Marije Johnston (violins), Rebecca Jones (viola), Brian O’Kane (cello)

Beamish String Quartet no.3, ‘Reed Stanzas’ (2011) (5:25-20:49) (Elias Quartet only)
Mendelssohn Octet in E flat major Op.20 (1825) (27:02-58:58)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 25 June 2018

You can listen to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast by clicking here

Written by Ben Hogwood

You would do well to find a really quiet spot before listening to this concert. That is because Sally Beamish’s String Quartet no.3, written for a first performance at the BBC Proms in 2011, begins with a distant offstage violin solo.

In her work Beamish is tapping heavily into the folksongs of the Hebrides, and the Elias Quartet second violinist Donald Grant, well versed in that literature, is an ideal player to begin the work (from 5:25), with all the inflections the style of writing brings. As the ensemble join nearly two minutes later Beamish’s harmonic workings become clearer, but the distinctive folk melody continues to pull the ear.

A set of ‘stanzas’ provide development and variations on the theme, with the one from 8:15 changing the mood considerably from wide open to closed in. From 11:25 violin and cello join in a duet, before the music breaks into a quicker and much more assertive section. Then after some pretty frenetic dialogue, the mood cuts once again towards that of the opening, moving back towards the original folk melody, which subsides to silence once again.

The performance here was an intense one, its colours and harmonies showing a clear debt to Britten, whose quartets Beamish was listening to at the time. Yet there is no fully blown pastiche here, with a distinctive style of quartet writing that stays very open and direct in its communication. It was great to see Sally Beamish in the audience.

The Elias Quartet were then doubled in number by the Navarra Quartet to play one of Mendelssohn’s many early chamber music masterpieces. The Octet is a real one-off, mastering a form few composers since have managed to achieve. It is all the more remarkable when you consider Mendelssohn completed the work at the age of just 16!

The piece begins with typically youthful Mendelssohn qualities of enthusiasm and vigour, but with a melody that immediately sticks in the head (from 27:02-41:02). The second theme (29:07) is a nice complement, serene and thoughtful. What really stands out is the fullness of texture when compared to the string quartet before, Mendelssohn beefing up the sound with the two cellos and violas at the lower end in particular. Yet he thinks nothing of changing the mood quite considerably in the course of the first movement, with a sudden vulnerability introduced around 35:50 that checks the positive thoughts around it – until a rush back to the original theme.

The second movement (from 41:30-48:18)) is a slow Andante, and it exploits the uncertainty briefly aired in the first with a darker outlook but also a romantic sense of longing. It too thinks nothing of moving to a faster section, quite a fraught exchange of ideas.

The third movement scherzo (48:39) is the most celebrated of the four movements, containing strong pointers towards Mendelssohn’s Shakespearian music, and especially the Scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This one too is fleet of foot, with silvery shadows darting around the texture all the way through to the end at 53:03. At this point we surged into the finale, a thrilling dialogue between the four different sections of instruments (two lots of violins, violas and cellos) before a sweep to the finish at 58:58.

This was an excellent, joyous performance from the two ensembles, even if just occasionally it had too firm a foot on the accelerator pedal, with some of the tuning in the first movement going slightly awry as the ensembles pushed further forwards.

Further listening

There are no recordings currently available of Reed Stanzas, though a natural progression for further listening is a disc containing Beamish’s first two string quartets:

If the Mendelssohn appeals, this version from the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Chamber Ensemble combines the Octet with a much later work, the wonderful and underrated String Quintet no.2:

For more early Mendelssohn, you simply have to try the amazing Piano Quartets, written when the composer was just 14, and showing an uncommon mastery of writing dramatic music for the piano: