Shaham and co bring bustling virtuosity to Mendelssohn’s teenage masterpiece

Gil Shaham

By David Threasher

Often when listening to Mendelssohn’s Octet, I find myself searching for moments that might betray the youthfulness of its creator: some prolixity, some passing pomposity, some momentary immaturity or fleeting grandiosity pointing to the fact that the composer was only 16 years old. Needless to say, time and time again I draw a blank, finding it impossible to pinpoint anything that suggests that it’s anything less than perfect, one of the true miracles of music.  Gil Shaham and the Sejong Soloists – a handpicked ensemble of young musicians – present a driving performance, bustling and forward-moving in the opening Allegro, perhaps a little cosmetic in the Andante but ideally airborne and impish in the Walpurgis-Scherzo.  Shaham is spotlit within the balance, most notably in the first movement, although a better equilibrium is approached thereafter.  There are some breathtaking  pianissimos and beguiling touches of portamento in what is a most likeable performance, building cumulatively to a chattering contrapuntal finale that demonstrates these players’ admirable abilities individually and in ensemble.  I maintain a soft spot for the recording (on period instruments) by Hausmusik (Virgin, 9/90R); this is sweeter, less stately, equally compelling.

The couplings are two of Haydn’s three extant violin concertos, also early works, although “early” for Haydn means he was around twice the age of Octet-period Mendelssohn.  Shaham’s rich violin tone is a boon in these works, especially in the central slow movements, making this a viable modern-instrument alternative (with fairly inoffensive harpsichord continuo) to the recent Podger in No 1 (Channel Classics, 12/09) or the older Standage/Pinnock (Archiv, 5/89) and Wallfisch (Virgin, 11/92R).  Stephen Somary’s otherwise comprehensive booklet-note goes through all manner of contortions to concoct a link between Haydn’s slight concertos and the still-remarkable genius of Mendelssohn’s teenage masterpiece.