Mendelssohn's quartets celebrated in chamber music marathon

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In the top right corner of the manuscript score of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy's famous string Octet, he placed a strange string of letters:

"L. e. g. G."

Are these letters a secret key to the harmonic makeup of this stunning chamber work, one that announced to the world the presence of a new prodigy? Are they an abbreviation of some literary allusion made by the famously well-read composer (and a friend of Goethe)?

No, they stand, in German, for "Lass es geling, Gott" or "Let it succeed, God!"


The Mendelssohn Project Pacifica Quartet presented by Pittsburgh Chamber Music Society
  • When: 3 p.m. today: Op. 81, Nos. 1-2, Quartet in A minor, Op. 13 and Quartet in D major, Op. 44, No. 1.

    8 p.m. today: Op. 81, Nos. 3-4, Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 44, No. 3 and Quartet in F minor, Op. 80.

    8 p.m. tomorrow: Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 12, Quartet in E minor, Op. 44, No. 2, and Octet in E-flat major, Op. 20 with the Miro Quartet.

  • Where: Carnegie Music Hall, Oakland.
  • Tickets: $15-$35; call 412-394-3353.

These words capture not only the trepidation of the 16-year-old composer about how his first substantive work would fare, but also his bounding joy.

The Octet (1825) certainly did succeed, and remains one of the most celebrated examples of chamber music ever written. Although it is usually performed by two string quartets, it is written for four violins, two violas and two cellos, each given individual treatment much of the time rather than as two "teams" of players.

Even with an onslaught of detractors following his death, Mendelssohn (1809-1847) and the optimism and vivaciousness of his music are as popular as ever. As we celebrate the 200th anniversary of his birth, works such as the Violin Concerto, the Italian and Scottish Symphonies, the overture and incidental music to "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (with its famous "Wedding March") are heard everywhere. Piano and organ works, the oratorio "Elijah," the Octet and a host of string quartets also are mainstays.

The last two will be the focus of a two-day musical marathon presented by the Pittsburgh Chamber Music Society. The renowned Pacifica Quartet will perform Mendelssohn's complete music for string quartet as well as the Octet, with the Miro Quartet, in three concerts over two days. That's a lot of Mendelssohn, but there will be no trace of monotony.

"One of the great things about Mendelssohn is his variety of textures and sound worlds," says violist Masumi Per Rostad, who along with violinists Simin Ganatra and Sibbi Bernhardsson and cellist Brandon Vamos comprise the Pacifica Quartet. "He gets this wonderful energy that is in contrast to his extremely delicate scherzos. He does so many things so well."

Mendelssohn was born into a rich and prominent Jewish family in Berlin. His grandfather was the Jewish philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn, but his father, Abraham, converted his family to Lutheranism, in part because of the anti-Semitism brewing. Despite Felix's active involvement in Lutheranism -- from championing the J.S. Bach and writing the "Reformation" Symphony for the 300th anniversary of Luther's Augsburg Confession -- his Jewish background caused many to denigrate his music.

Chief among his detractors after Mendelssohn's tragically early death was Richard Wagner, but a common reproach by others has been that Mendelssohn lacks the weight of other Romantic composers. That's a fallacy the performance of his complete quartets dispenses so well. These six show tremendous mastery of form (learned in great part from the cycle of quartets by Beethoven) and remarkable lyrical flow.

"His writing is so organic," says Rostad. "Because he writes so effortlessly you don't realize how complex it is."

Mendelssohn's Op. 12 (1829) quartet takes the bold step of having a theme from the first movement return to finish the entire piece. Op. 13 (1827) in A Minor takes its musical material from an earlier aria that is skillfully woven into the movements in outright quotations and hidden references. The three quartets of Op. 44 are confident pieces, abounding with creativity, melody and joy as has hardly been matched in the genre.

Then there is String Quartet in F Minor Op. 80, perhaps the most passionate opus in all of Mendelssohn's output. He wrote this harmonically pungent and almost angry work after the death of his sister, Fanny, to whom he was very close his entire life.

"He was in a state of despair," says Rostad. "He actually for a while stopped composing and Op. 80 was his first attempt. The opening is full of jabs and anguish. There is a darkness that is not characteristic of the Mendelssohn we know as joyful."

The group recorded the cycle for Cedille records in 2005 and this weekend will be the third time the Pacifica Quartet has performed the complete Mendelssohn string quartets in a short period of time.

"There is a physical toll," admits Rostad who joined the group in 2001. "There are a lot of fast notes, but the main thing is the mental toll. You do get drained after a while."

But they will get some reinforcements in the form of the Miro Quartet for the performance of the Octet.

"They are fantastic to play with," says Rostad. "It is fun for quartet players to play with other quartet players. We are in the same medium. You can do things that you both understand."

And with a piece as virtuosic and textually varied as the Octet, you need every advantage.

"It is hard to get eight voices to balance," he says. "It could just sound like a blob of sound. The balance and the individualization of the parts -- that is where his genius shows through."

Not to worry, Mendelssohn. It will succeed, once again.


Classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at adruckenbrod@post-gazette.com . He blogs at Classical Musings at post-gazette.com.


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