String octets are rare, with only Shostakovich, Mendelssohn and Enescu having written examples that continue to be performed on anything like a regular basis. That rarity presents a problem for venues and promoters too, since chamber ensembles, section leaders drawn from orchestral ranks or a grouping assembled for specific performances are likely to be the only forces to take the pieces on with any seriousness. This concert opened violinist Anthony Marwood’s series at Wigmore Hall and saw him collaborating with violinist Isabelle van Keulen, violist Lawrence Power, cellist Richard Lester and the Heath Quartet to perform Mendelssohn and Enescu.
Mendelssohn occupied the first half, as more often than not he does when these two works are given in the same concert. A sense of tonal balance was immediately established and maintained throughout the work, with the first movement benefitting from the performers taking the ‘con fuoco’ marking at face value. The Andante brought a much needed sense of spacious refinement with its gently varied hues doing much to enthral the audience. The Scherzo found its much needed impetus easily in the hands of such accomplished players, although some violin entries could have been more clearly articulated. Any sense of nicety for nicety’s sake was rebuffed in the sense of purpose brought to the concluding Presto movement from its opening scurrilous gestures in the cello parts. Impassioned it certainly was, and as nearly big-boned orchestral in tone and substance as it could be to fulfil Mendelssohn’s wishes. Warmth of tone, depth of feeling and understanding and affection for the score were the over-riding sensations at the end of a highly satisfying performance.
Enescu’s octet is an altogether different and more complex undertaking for any group of musicians to come to terms with, both regarding the level of attention to detail required and understanding of its unique structure with the four movements being moulded into elements of a single huge sonata form, with the first movement as an exposition of no fewer than six main themes, the middle two movements as the development and the closing movement as the recapitulation. For this reason the selection of the initial tempo is a matter of key importance. The playing had definite drive and purpose to it, as they set off at a near ideal tempo, and proceeded to articulate Enescu’s web of thematic material with assurance. The second movement, marked Très fougueux or Very passionately, positively erupted with ruggedly articulated energy which added to the experience with its hell-for-leather attack on the music. Refinement played its part too before the movement set its course for a fortissimo conclusion that just stopped short of breaching the limits of comfort within the Wigmore Hall’s generous acoustic. A feeling of gossamer delicacy was evident throughout much of the third movement, whose muted initial pages seemed akin to the recitative for the more full-throated aria that follows from it. Isabelle van Keulen lent much in terms of inner feeling to the movement as a whole with her unassuming yet telling playing. The sense of inevitability often to be found at the start of the conclusion with the return of the opening theme momentarily lacked a little of its impact as the players could have given it a little more emphasis. However, they quickly grouped to articulate the thrust and parry of Enescu’s generously scored material, revelling in the long and sumptuous paragraphs. The performance was rightly greeted with long and enthusiastic applause.
Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org.uk.