Sunday, March 17, 2013

Mendelssohn's Octet: The First Recording

It seems almost unbelievable, when one looks at the 1948 Gramophone Shop Encyclopedia of Recorded Music, to realize that Mendelssohn's youthful Octet, that freshest example of his teenage genius, was unavailable to the record buyer except for three recordings of the Scherzo in Mendelssohn's own orchestration (as intended for the première performance of his First Symphony).  Such, however, was the case, since this first recording, from 1929, had long been deleted, and the second recording, by the Pro Musica Ensemble led by Henri Merckel, from French Polydor, had not yet been issued.  And the first recording had not even received very wide circulation, being aimed at the British market, with no representation on Victor:

Mendelssohn: Octet in E-Flat, Op. 20
International String Octet
Recorded February 18 and 22, 1929
HMV C 1672 through C 1675, four 78-rpm records
Link (FLAC files, 87.96 MB)
Link (MP3 files, 35.65 MB)

The rather enigmatically-named "International String Octet" was really two separate string quartets, the International String Quartet headed by André Mangeot and the Poltronieri String Quartet headed by Alberto Poltronieri.  Both groups were active in the recording studios - but for the National Gramophonic Society, not HMV; and the Poltronieri Quartet also recorded for Columbia.


  1. I agree, it does seem unbelievable - but I have a feeling that Mendelssohn's reputation was at a low ebb in the Roaring Twenties. That generation was all too familiar with its parents' and grandparents' pious adulation of Elijah, and probably a bit sick of the Canzonetta from Op.12 and Spring Song, Duetto and other Victorian emblems of domestic bliss. As for the Ernest Lough episode... Compton Mackenzie regularly complained that Mendelssohn (and Schumann) were out of fashion. The piano trios weren't recorded complete until late 1925 (Op.66) and mid-1927 (Op.49), and of the quartets only Op.12 and Op.44 No.1 were recorded complete during the 78 rpm era! The Violin Concerto, symphonies and overtures fared better, obviously, and large swathes of Britain remained in thrall to his choral and organ works for quite a while. The Octet's such a great, joyful, effervescent piece, and superbly written, it just shows you how wrong fashion could be - and was! Thanks, Nick

  2. I just learn so much from the SHELLACKOPHILE website. Moreover, the recordings, the transfers, the care, the intelligence that Shellackophile bestows on these otherwise unavailable selections compares favorably with; it even eclipses the entire Naxos Music Library. My own poor contributions for PADA Exclusives are no match and I can say that as I make those restoration-transfers myself. Such scholarship, refinement, musicality, and sensitivity are really hard to equal and impossible to surpass.

  3. Great timing – I’m just finishing up a piece on the Mendelssohn Octet for my Classicalnotes site. Two questions that perhaps you can answer:

    First, I've never come across another reference to a Pro Musica version and had assumed that the International Octet 78s (which I had downloaded from CHARM) had been the only recording of the Octet prior to the Vienna Octet’s mono Decca LP c. 1953. Do you know of a source for the Pro Musica version, since I’d love to hear it and include it in my survey of historically-significant recordings of the Octet? And do you know of any other pre-1953 versions besides the Pro Musica?

    Second, I had been puzzled to identify the personnel on the 1929 recording. The CHARM database indicates that the so-called International Octet in fact was an amalgam of the International and Poltronieri String Quartets but the former’s personnel seemed unclear, as the Octet labels don't identify them at all and various NGS labels of their quartet recordings listed them as Andre Mangeot either with Boris Pecker, Frank Howard and Herbert Withers or with Mssrs. Price, Bray and Shineborne (no first names or even initials). CHARM has labels for the Poltronieri's recordings of Boccherini and Haydn quartets that list Guido Ferrari, Fiorenzo Mori and Antonio Valesi, but do you know who the International Quartet players were?

    Thanks in advance for any input you can provide – and, of course, thanks as always for your generous sharing of music and erudition!!

    1. Peter - I had the Pro Musica version many years ago, but alas no longer. However, an online seller has the LP for $26 - see What I remember about it was, it was very fast, crammed onto three 78s. I had jotted the timings in my score: 9:53 - 6:07 - 3:18 - 6:04 (total 25:34).

      I'm frankly guessing about the ISQ personnel, but I do know, thanks to Pristine Audio, that their NGS recording of Schubert's D. 112 (which Pristine has reissued) was made Feb. 20, 1929 (right in the middle of the two HMV Mendelssohn dates!) and had the lineup of Pecker-Mangeot-Howard-Withers, so I think it's safe to assume their personnel on the Mendelssohn was identical. I believe Price, Bray et al came later, at the time of the Purcell English Music Society volume for Columbia, c. 1935.

    2. Thanks for the info – very helpful! Here’s the tentative result of some initial detective- and guess-work.

      Your link is for a Vox LP, but a set of the 3 Polydor 78s is currently listed on eBay from Argentina with illustrations of all 6 labels, which show the side splits awkwardly arranged so as to divide all four movements (the first one twice). The finale, via Japan, is on YouTube in an excellent transfer with the side break at 1:55 (and a video of [non-HMV] dogs scampering in front of a giant Western Electric horn – one even barks at 3:34!). I assume from your timings that the first and third movement repeats were omitted (as on the International Octet set), which would bring the third and fourth movements well within standard timing, but still requiring that the first and second movements be cut and/or sped up somewhat (to lose about a minute each). The eBay poster gives the recording date as 6/11/48. That finale is wonderfully light, deftly played and meticulously balanced. If any of your other visitors has further information I’d greatly appreciate it!

  4. A Mendelssohn Miracle. I had forgotten how gorgeous the Octet is. Thanks for the
    posting. Especially as it gives me a chance ro kvell about Another Mendelssohn
    Miracle: Midsummer Night's Dream. The overture composed when he was 17, the
    rest 17 years later -- together sounding like one continuous, white-hot inspiration!

    Mike in Plovdiv

  5. Octet, addendum: But circulation can't have been limited totally, as your records each
    have an Amsterdam dealer's sticker. Word got out somehow.

    Mike in Plovdiv

  6. I have uploaded a transfer-restoration of Bryan's wonderful offering of the Mendelssohn Octet. My version has reduced hiss achieved by destructive feedback as well as ambience enhancement, using Robert Katz's Algorithmix plug in. No reverberation is added but the room reflections in the 1929 grooves are ferreted out and increased in volume, after which the direct (unreflected) waves are added back in. The effect is reversible by converting to single track. Here is my enhancement, then, of Bryan's wonderful transfer; it is in FLAC
    THE LINK IS: < >

    John Duffy in Iowa, USA