Harmonia mundi HMC 901868 49:36 ***:
Ensemble Explorations is a relatively new chamber group, having bee established in 1995. These all-Merndelssohn selections were inscribed August 2004. The Octet (1825) string sound has an authentic whine to it, an edgy brilliance underscored by prominent participation from the cellos. The plastic, symphonic character of the part-writing emerges with fluid clarity; and at the height of the tension in the opening movement’s development section ,we can hear the intimations of Glinka‚’ Ruslan and Ludmilla Overture. Christine Busch plays the bravura concertante violin part with a thin but piercing sonority. The C Minor Andante maintains an intimate, autumnal hue, a degree of inwardness close to the spirit of Schumann. The magical aura of the G Minor Scherzo hardly needs further description. Ensemble Explorations takes it a bit marcato, but the diaphanously gossamer threads of melody and inner filigree manage to stretch out into the musical ether. Staccato and pianissimo, the piece shivers with its own, tripping delights. The Presto is a fugal tour de force clearly meant to rival Mozart of the Jupiter Symphony, with Handelian joie de vivre (echoes of And He Shall Live Forever and Ever), though its tenor echoes Beethoven’s Op. 59, No. 3. The mix becomes quite animated, quite wild, a delicately scored moment of ensemble bravura of the highest order.
Curiously, Ensemble Explorations has decided not to balance the scale of the Octet with anything like dynamic girth; instead, we have a series of salon pieces, beginning with the Theme and 8 Variations that make up Variations concertantes, Op. 17 (1829), which plays like a precursor of Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations, Op. 33. The double octaves in the piano become quite insistent, over which the pizzicato cello marks its own territory. The minor variation reveals something deep in Mendelssohn’s nature. The ternary Op. 109 (1845) Song Without Words is a popular favorite, an idyll with a lulling piano part that hearkens to the opening of Dvorak’s Four Romantic Pieces. The Albumblatt (pub. 1868), again played on the special sound of the cello and 1874 Steinway by Frank Braley, has a haunted flavor, a sense of its own nostalgia. Were this music complemented with, say, the first of Mendelssohn’s two cello sonatas, Op. 45, I would be more inclined to reward this otherwise short but sonically opulent disc four stars.
— Gary Lemco