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Chamber Music

Mendelssohn Octet in E-flat, Op. 20

By October 26, 2020March 19th, 2023No Comments

In this posting, I am doing something different.Rather than choose string players who were famous in the past and long dead, I have decided to highlight a phenomenal living string player. She is Janine Jansen, a Dutch woman whose playing has ignited the classical music world. And, she has created her own festival in Utrecht in the Netherlands. So, what you will see and hear are Janine Jansen and her students.

Mendelssohn-Bartholdy and his Octet

Felix Mendelssohn (1809–47), perhaps the most extraordinary composer–prodigy in the history of music, was just midway between his sixteenth and seventeenth birthdays when he composed this piece. He wrote it as a birthday gift for his friend and violin teacher, Eduard Rietz, and the florid first-violin part stands a compliment to that musician’s abilities. Rietz had been the concertmaster of the Berlin Court Orchestra in 1819, and that was the position he held when Mendelssohn wrote for him his rarely played D minor Violin Concerto (not to be confused with the later, more famous E minor Concerto). Rietz was on the way to becoming an accomplished conductor, too, when he was swept away by tuberculosis in 1832, a few months after his twenty-ninth birthday. It was Franz Liszt who broke the news to Mendelssohn.

The string octet was in no way a classic chamber music genre. Louis Spohr had produced the first of his four “double quartets” in 1823, but despite their identical combination of instruments they hew to a fundamentally different concept from Mendelssohn’s. Where Spohr’s two string quartets operate as independent units, Mendelssohn uses his eight instruments as a single ensemble capable of any interactive permutations. In this regard, Mendelssohn’s Octet is quite closely related to the dozen string symphonies he had been composing during the preceding years, a connection underscored by the composer’s instruction on the published score: “This Octet must be played by all the instruments in symphonic orchestral style. Pianos and fortes must be strictly observed and more strongly emphasized than is usual in pieces of this character.” He would later arrange the Octet’s Scherzo as an orchestral piece with wind parts so that it might be used as an alternative movement in his C minor Symphony.

Janine Jansen

Jansen began playing the violin at six, and both her parents were musicians, as are her two brothers. What was less predictable was that she would go on not just to play the instrument, but to become one of the true greats. A playing style that combines gripping presence with infinite subtlety of tone and phrasing has the critics reaching for every superlative in the book, wherever she plays across the world: “So golden, so delicate, almost ethereal” (The Times), “dazzling dexterity” (The Australian), “a tantalizing dance of colours and textures” (New York Times), “a stunning display of sustained intensity” (The Guardian).

Born in Soest in the Netherlands, she went on to study with Coosje Wijzenbeek, Philipp Hirshhorn and Boris Belkin. Her Concertgebouw debut in 1997 made her a great star in her native Holland, but she was destined for a wider stage. She was named a BBC New Generation Artist in 2002, made her London debut in the same year, with Vladimir Ashkenazy conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra, and three years later opened the 2005 BBC Proms with a performance of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto that really put her on the international map. Along the way she received invitations from some of the world’s greatest orchestras, including the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Berliner Philharmoniker, London Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia and Cleveland Orchestras, the NHK Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, the London Symphony Orchestra and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. She has worked with such eminent conductors as Lorin Maazel, Valery Gergiev, Riccardo Chailly, Neeme Järvi, Paavo Järvi, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Daniel Harding, Sir Antonio Pappano, Sir Mark Elder, Edo de Waart and Sir Roger Norrington.