A string octet for Easter Sunday

Hallelujah, Christ is risen!

I first heard Felix Mendelssohn’s Octet in E-flat Major, Op. 20, when a shortened form of its first movement was performed several years ago at an Easter Sunday church service by the talented musicians at Citylife Presbyterian in Boston. Ever since then, I have associated it with Easter.

Having scoured the web, I’ve determined that the following recording, brought to you by Avrotros Klassiek, is the best of all those available for free listening:

The performance took place at the TivoliVredenburg in Utrecht, the Netherlands, during the International Chamber Music Festival on June 25, 2014. It features Boris Brovtsyn, Julian Rachlin, Julia-Maria Kretz, and Vilde Frang on violin; Amihai Grosz and Lawrence Power on viola; Jens Peter Maintz on cello; and Rick Stotijn on double bass (replacing the second cello in Mendelssohn’s original score).

Mendelssohn composed his Octet in E-flat Major in 1825 when he was just sixteen and with it opened up brand-new possibilities for the eight-piece string ensemble. Whereas his contemporary Louis (born Ludwig) Spohr, who also composed string octets, simply had two quartets operate as independent units, Mendelssohn took a much more integrated approach, using all eight instruments in multiple interactive permutations throughout the entire work.

Music critic Conrad Wilson notes of the piece that “its youthful verve, brilliance and perfection make it one of the miracles of nineteenth-century music”—its first movement especially, which is one of four but lasts twice as long as any other, through 13:54 of the video above. Played Allegro moderato ma con fuoco (“moderately fast but with fire”), it evokes for me Resurrection joy and vitality.

Resurrection by Stephen A. Wilson
Stephen A. Wilson (American, 1952–), Resurrection, 2008. Stained glass clerestory window, 10 × 40 ft. St. Agnes Catholic Church, Shepherdstown, West Virginia. Click on the image to read the artist’s description.

Christ is risen indeed!

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