Encore: the 1997 Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival CD The Music
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847): Sextet in D Major for Violin, Two Violas, Violoncello, Double Bass, and Piano, Op.110 (1824)Listeners should not be misled by this work's high opus number: Mendelssohn wrote the Sextet when he was barely 15. It acquired this opus number when it was published in 1868, more than 20 years after his death. When Mendelssohn completed the Sextet on May 10, 1824 (which was, coincidentally, three days after the premiere of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony), he was at the end of his apprentice period and on the verge of achieving his mature voice: the Octet for Strings came from the following year, the Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream from the year after that. If the Sextet is not on a level with those masterpieces, it is nevertheless an engaging work that employs unusual forces, including a rare appearance in chamber music by the much-neglected double bass.
No one knows why Mendelssohn wrote for the unique combination of violin, two violas, cello, double bass, and piano—perhaps he had this particular set of players available to him at the time. One would expect Mendelssohn to fully exploit the rich tonal possibilities he has available in the middle and lower ranges with these instruments, but in fact he does not, choosing most often to assign the melodic line to the piano or violin. The violas and lower strings usually play accompanying roles in the Sextet, and this gives the piano's high cascading triplets and the violin's E string a particularly silvery and bright sound by contrast.
The sonata-form Allegro vivace contrasts the breadth of its opening theme with a more sharply defined second idea. At many points the young composer divides his forces into two distinct sonorities, as the flowing strings trade passages with the percussive piano. Showers of triplets from the piano provide the movement's rhythmic pulse, and these triplets power the movement to its close.
The gentle Adagio—in the unusual key of F-sharp major—is a lyric interlude. Mendelssohn mutes the strings and marks the music "dolce"; once again, piano and strings exchange the melodic line. The Sextet's third movement is its most striking. Mendelssohn marks it Menuetto, but then—surprisingly—sets it in 6/8 rather than the expected 3/4 and asks that it be "Agitato," a most unusual marking for a minuet movement. Agitated this music certainly is, and, far from the character of most minuets, its surging outer sections surround a calmer trio. After a reprise of the minuet, the movement vanishes on the lonely sound of solo pizzicato strokes.
The piano launches the concluding Allegro vivace on its energetic way. Mendelssohn biographer Philip Radcliffe hears "polkalike rhythms" in this sonata-form movement, which maintains its jovial spirits until the closing minutes, when Mendelssohn suddenly brings back the minuet theme, again marked "Agitato," and the movement rises to a powerful climax before ending with a coda marked Allegro con fuoco. The ferocity of the close, where the music returns to the major only in the final measures, is at sharp odds with the generally pleasant nature of most of the Sextet.—Eric Bromberger
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897): Quartet No.2 in A Major for Violin, Viola, Violoncello, and Piano, Op.26 (1861-62)Often the way to learn the secrets of a masterpiece is to examine it alongside its nearest siblings. Great works of art often develop in multiples—like grapes and bananas—and for very logical reasons. Take Picasso: His late-1930s dying bulls, frightened horses, and weeping women were studies for his Guernica. Monet's water lilies also illustrate a genius being fascinated by the seemingly endless variations inherent in any given thesis. And Mozart, in his Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola, K.364, and Concerto for Two Pianos, K.365, fashioned two duo concertos in the same key of E-flat major, with many shared characteristics but aesthetically different results.