La Scena Musicale

Monday, March 2, 2009

Mendelssohn at 200 Still Thrills and Inspires!

By Paul E. Robinson

Classical Travels

Felix Mendelssohn and sister Fanny

Composer Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) has often been denigrated for being blessed with a life that was too easy. Great composers, the theory goes, have to struggle; that’s what makes them great. Well, of course, this is nonsense. Whether he struggled or not to create the music the world continues to love, Mendelssohn, at 38, died far too young. He might have left us so much more to enjoy.

I attended a Mendelssohn Festival last spring and an all-Mendelssohn concert just a few weeks ago. At each event, one of the major works was the Octet for Strings, and taking part in each event was the incomparable Miró Quartet.

It is always a special pleasure to hear a live performance of the Octet – Mendelssohn was only sixteen when he wrote it – but having heard two excellent performances of this astonishing masterpiece within a matter of months, I was inspired to pen a Mendelssohn tribute, a timely tribute, for the composer was born 200 years ago this month.

From Jewish Activism to Christian Conversion
Felix Mendelssohn’s father was a Hamburg banker and his grandfather the famous philosopher and Jewish activist Moses Mendelssohn. Felix’s father Abraham was Jewish in name only and religion meant nothing to him.

At the time, first in Hamburg and later after the family moved to Berlin, there was no particular discrimination against Jews but such discrimination was a part of history and could reappear at any moment.

Abraham’s wife Leah had a brother who had converted to Christianity and continually urged his sister and her family to do the same. Abraham and Leah finally agreed, more out of convenience than conviction, and had the children baptized.

Felix was seven years old when he converted, and thereafter parents and children called themselves Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, adopting the Christian last name of Leah’s brother Jacob. Abraham went along with this change of religion, but he was clearly uncomfortable in abandoning the faith his father Moses had worked so hard to celebrate.

Large Score Oratorios a Testament of Faith
For all practical purposes Felix lived his life as a Christian and became an ardent believer. His oratorios Elijah and St. Paul were the work of a man of Christian faith. These were the largest compositions Mendelssohn ever attempted, and in his lifetime they were widely admired, especially in England where Mendelssohn had become a frequent visitor.

These large-scale works are not nearly as popular today, although some individual arias and choruses are wonderful. The tradition of grand choral works has passed, and to many modern listeners, these pieces seem dutiful and sorely lacking in drama, rather than inspired.

Speaking personally, Elijah and St. Paul are not the works of Mendelssohn that I would carry with me to that dreaded ‘desert island.’ I would, instead, be sure to take with me the Octet, the Violin Concerto and the Scottish, Italian and Reformation symphonies. Although these works are very different, they all have in common a capacity not only to lift the listener out of depression, but to send him/her away, filled with hope and optimism. What a splendid legacy for any composer!

Devastated Mendelssohn Succumbs to Deadly Depression
Mendelssohn was a prodigy often compared to Mozart. Both showed uncommon talent for music while little more than toddlers. Both children were giving piano recitals and composing music before they were ten years old. “The Little Berliner,” as the young Felix was called, was only twelve years old when he was introduced to Goethe as one of the 'Wunderkind' of his time.

In adulthood, Mendelssohn’s career was that of travelling virtuoso and conductor. For many years, his home base was Leipzig, where he became conductor of the Gewandhaus concerts. He married Ceçile Jeanrenaud in 1836 and fathered two daughters and a son. By all accounts it was a very happy marriage.

Mendelssohn had a lifelong confidante in his older sister Fanny (pictured above with Felix), a fine musician and composer in her own right. When she died suddenly in May, 1847 he was devastated to the point where he was unable to enjoy music, let alone compose. A few months after her passing, he had recovered to the point where he could write some short pieces and the String Quartet in F minor Op. 80. Not surprisingly, this was some of the darkest and most unsettled music he ever wrote. After this brief recovery from despair, came a terminal relapse. Mendelssohn, after a series of strokes, died on November 4, 1847, a mere six months after his beloved sister.

A Shower of New Recordings Will Doubtless Freshen the Lecacy
In this 200th anniversary year of Felix Mendelssohn’s death, there will doubtless be all kinds of tributes from the record companies.

One of the first to appear is from Deutsche Grammophon and features violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter. Early in her career Mutter recorded Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto with Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic (DG 463 6412 ). Now, nearly thirty years later, she has recorded the work again (DG B0012533). This time her collaborators are Kurt Masur and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Mendelssohn actually wrote the piece for Ferdinand David, then concertmaster of the Gewandhaus. Mutter gives an authoritative and beautiful performance, and perhaps under Masur’s influence plays the slow movement a little faster than she did years ago.

This recording is unique in being sold in CD and DVD versions on separate discs, but in the same package. I am not sure I understand the concept, but I guess it gives the listener more options.

In addition to the Violin Concerto, both the CD and the DVD include two other performances of music by Mendelssohn and featuring Mutter. She is joined by former husband André Previn and cellist Lynn Harrell for the Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor Op. 49, and with Previn she plays the Violin Sonata in F major.

Both are excellent performances, but I was simply astonished by the quality of Previn’s playing. He is celebrating his 80th birthday this year, and to see him on stage conducting these days is to see a man in obviously failing health.

It’s difficult to believe the Previn in this DVD recorded just a few months ago is eighty! The Mendelssohn D minor Trio is no picnic for the pianist, and especially in the scherzo and the finale, his hands seem to be in constant motion. His body scarcely moves and there is little or no facial expression, but that’s pretty much the way he’s always played the piano. The fingers, however, fly! Fly, and hit the right notes!

Adding to These Classic Performances You Won’t Want to Miss!
If you like your Mendelssohn with more personality and ‘edge of the seat’ excitement, I recommend the terrific performance of the D minor Trio by Martha Argerich and the Capuçon brothers recorded live at the Lugano Festival in 2002 (EMI 5 57504 2).

As far as recordings of the symphonies are concerned, I have many favorites. Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic recorded all the symphonies and I greatly admire the sensible tempos – why do so many conductors take the “Italian” symphony so fast these days? – the long lines and the beautiful textures (DG 477 7581). The second movement of the Reformation only comes into focus at a slower tempo. It is fashionable to denigrate Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 2 (Lobgesang), but the Karajan recording comes close to convincing us it is a masterpiece.

I have long treasured Casals’ wonderful recording of the Italian symphony with the Marlboro Festival Orchestra (Sony SNYC 46251). It is slow and mannered but what depth of expression and exuberance! Not to be missed. The CD also contains a marvelous performance of the Octet.

Worth seeking out is John Eliot Gardiner’s recording of the Italian and Reformation symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic (DG 459 156). Terrific playing and a fresh look at these great works! The disc also contains the revised version of the Italian symphony.

Mendelssohn was thought to be a facile composer who tossed off major works in a matter of hours; in fact, we now know that he was plagued with self-doubt and often revised his compositions.

Fanny felt that his first thoughts were usually the best and cautioned him against this frequent revision. In the case of the Italian symphony it is difficult to understand why he would have been moved to rewrite what to most observers is one of his finest compositions. Because he did, we can hear the revisions and judge for ourselves which is the better of the two versions.

For another recording of the Scottish symphony – one that has been widely admired for many years and deservedly so – check out Peter Maag conducting the London Symphony (Decca 466 9902) in a spacious and grand performance from 1960.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar and Sir Georg Solti: his Life and Music, both available at

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  • You've written an extremely sensible and fair appraisal of Mendelssohn. I'm sorry this comment is a year too late but I would like to mention something. You've mentioned the recording that Gardiner and the Vienna Philharmonic did of the two versions of Mendelssohn's Italian symphony, I hope that he and the ORR can record a CD with the Scottish and Italian symphonies, plus the Hebrides overture. I'm really hoping they'll really get round to putting a Mendelssohn cycle on CD, and hopefully include the complete Midsummer Night's Dream music.

    By Anonymous Yi-Peng, At January 7, 2010 4:30 AM  

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