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November 12, Concert: Ah, Where to Begin

Ah, where to begin about this upcoming concert? First, we are lucky to get the world-renowned professional string ensemble Arianna Quartet performing for us. Second, their ranks will be enhanced by the extra viola of none other than Richard Young, himself one of the most experienced chamber musicians available (again, we are incredibly lucky to have Richard as a CMSFW regular). Third, and this is the part I’m most excited about, we’ll have a chance to hear three rarely performed works from composers you certainly know and already love. Names like Beethoven, Webern, and Mendelssohn are like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, right? You know anything composed by those giants are bound to be good stuff!

Beethoven, of course, needs no hard sell. Everyone is familiar with his wonderful symphonies and chamber works, especially his string quartets. However, he wrote this String Quintet in C Major, Op. 29, well after his first set of string quartets. Besides the fact that every professional string quartet inevitably has to deal with the allure and demands of Beethoven’s quartets, Gary Levinson believes that the technical difficulties of this particular quintet have greatly contributed to its neglect. But don’t technical demands put you, the listener off – you won’t notice anything but the pure Beethoven genius you’ve come to expect (and maybe a little extra sweat on the faces of the musicians). For my taste, it’s hard to imagine that so few performances have been recorded of this piece – even less than the other two rare works on this concert’s program. As for one of the only available recordings you can purchase, I can’t help but recommend the Academy of St. Martin’s in the Fields Chamber Ensemble on the Chandos label, especially since the CD’s companion piece is one many consider as Beethoven’s most popular chamber work, his Septet in E-flat Major, Op. 20.

Now, admittedly, the composer Anton Webern is a harder sell – that is, until you hear his Langsamer Satz for String Quartet (the name means “Slow Movement” as it’s the only movement he wrote of a proposed string quartet). This is a romantic, youthful work of Webern’s from about 1905 that preceded most of the serial, 12-tone works he composed and championed until his early death in occupied Germany at the end of WWII. Really, you have to hear this tonal work with hints of Brahms romanticism to believe it. Well, don’t just try to believe it, go hear this performance and I bet you’ll be just as frustrated as I am that there was not at least an entire 4-movement work to listen to. If you seek a recording of this piece, look no further than a performance by the Carmina Quartet on the Denon label, especially since the bulk of the CD is taken up by the two unjustly neglected string quartets of Karol Szymanowski – a composer no less than Arthur Rubenstein championed.

For the final and rarely performed work slated for this concert, consider another string quintet, this time by Mendelssohn. Likewise known for his fine symphonic and chamber works (again, mostly his string quartets), there are actually two string quintets by Mendelssohn. This String Quintet in B-flat Major, Op. 87, is his second, and like the Beethoven quintet, a second viola is added to the standard string quartet setup. Once again, you have a composer whose output, in spite of his short life, is so grand and overwhelming that great works like this quintet can go without much, if any, notice. Well, wonder no more and just rejoice at getting a chance to hear it. Of the few available recordings, the choice is an obvious one – a version by the Academy Chamber Ensemble, this time led by the late, incomparable chamber musician Iona Brown on the Philips label. This recording is justly famous as its companion piece is one of the most critically acclaimed versions of Mendelssohn’s Octet in E-flat Major, Op. 20 ever.

So, do not miss this chance to hear these compositions live and in person – it may very likely be the only chance you get!

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