Movement 1: Allegro con moto
Movement 2: Intermezzo: Andante sostenuto
Movement 3: Scherzo: Allegro di molto
Movement 4: Allegro vivace
In comparison with the fire and drive of the String Octet’s outer movements in particular, the A major String Quintet appears positively relaxed, taking the relatively genial Mozart and Schubert as its main stylistic cues rather than Beethovenian intensity and momentum. Once again the stylistic and structural assurance and maturity border on the staggering, for not only is the tone quite unlike anything else that was being composed at the time (Beethoven and Schubert were simultaneously pouring out their late masterpieces), but it also embraces a quite unique form of lyrical monothematicism. Indeed the only ‘new’ material which emerges after the initial statement of the glorious opening melody is nothing more than a counterpoint to the original. Even the dancing figuration which first appears in the cello at bar 35 is derived from it, and the much-delayed second subject which eventually arrives in the orthodox dominant key of E still has this same theme as its background. The final coda, a Mendelssohn speciality which invariably finds his musical imagination working at full stretch, is a stroke of genius as a twice-repeated rising scale from the first violin melts away into the equivalent of a musical sigh, setting up a quiet end to this radiantly beautiful movement.
The F major ABA Intermezzo which Mendelssohn composed for the 1832 version is one of those elusive, emotionally subtly understated pieces which, despite a more ominous-sounding D minor middle section, creates a tantalizingly unresolved ambivalence so that even at the end the listener is not quite sure whether Mendelssohn’s sincere expression of personal grief has been entirely resolved.
There are many who claim—with some justification—that Mendelssohn’s most lasting contribution to Western music was the creation of an entirely novel form of gossamer-textured Scherzo, replete with darting, half-illuminated, interweaving ideas. For the remarkably similar equivalent of the Octet, Mendelssohn had taken some lines from the ‘Walpurgis Night’ episode from Part I of Goethe’s Faust as his inspiration:
Wolkenflug und Nebelflor
Erhellen sich von oben,
Luft im Laub und Wind im Rohr
Und Alles ist zerstoben.
Train of clouds and flowering mist
Illuminate the sky,
Reeds and leaves by wind are kissed
Then all must quickly fly.
The same could apply equally well here.
It is not until the driving triplet rhythms of the finale that the influence of Beethoven is keenly felt, in particular the rhythmically prototypical finales of the latter’s String Quartet, Op 18 No 1, and String Trio, Op 9 No 3. However, whereas Beethoven is all physical indomitability and muscular propulsion, Mendelssohn is on his toes, as light as air. Subtleties abound, including a relatively early arrival of the second subject to counterbalance the first movement’s delay, although it is the all-pervading triplets that dominate the movement as a whole. Also nicely judged is the appearance of a new idea in the development section in duplets, which has the effect of temporarily stabilizing the self-propelling fluidity of the rhythms elsewhere.
from notes by Julian Haylock © 1998