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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Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Beside such misanthropy, antisemitism is almost incidental

This weekend, CBC Toronto will be airing a conversation between Dominic Lawson and me on the question of Herbert von Karajan, and whether (as discussed on this blog) a bad man can make good music.

A comment by Richard V Harris has been rolling round my mind.

Biology, he writes, 'is the science of exceptions, and we are not dealing here in absolutes (of goodness), only tendencies. Wagner was a great composer, but we do not see him as having been a good man, largely because he was an anti-Semite. I have no idea as to whether or not he privately carried out acts of kindness more than the average person.'

Well, from the evidence in his letters and autobiography, not to mention Cosima's diaries, Wagner never knowingly performed an act of kindness without intending self-benefit. He abandoned his first wife Minna, milked the affections of rich women like Mathilde Wesendonck, seduced and impregnated the wife of his acolyte Hans von Bulow and flaunted his conquest to her father, Franz Liszt, who had done more than anyone to assist his career.

Cosima was just as bad. When Liszt lay dying in the middle of a Bayreuth Festival, his daughter was seldom at his side. Beside such wilful misanthropy, their rabid anti-semitism can appear almost incidental.

The question that arises is: did Wagner have to be such a brute in order to achieve his Ring? Every act of creation requires a degree of egotism. Do the greatest acts demand the most inhuman conduct? Discuss.

Source: Artsjournal


Monday, February 4, 2008

Karajan: The Music, The Legend

Soloists; Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra; Orchestra of La Scala, Milan; Herbert von Karajan, dir.
DG 4777097 (CD: 70 min 55 s, DVD: 74 min 2 s)
*** $$

CD: Bach: Concerto for 2 Violins; Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 5; Brahms: Symphony No. 4
DVD: Beethoven: Symphony No. 5; Suppé: Light Cavalry Overture; Excerpts from: Brahms: A German Requiem; Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 2; Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4; Wagner: Das Rheingold; Leoncavallo: Pagliacci

This audiovisual set represents the entry-level offering in the DG commemoration of the Herbert von Karajan centennial. It marks a subtle change in marketing strategy by the yellow label. DG now appears intent on recruiting a whole new generation of Karajanites from youngsters scarcely born when he died. Youth is also being actively courted on the company's website, where an avalanche of HvK is available for download. For seasoned collectors, the welter of commemorative reissues mostly boils down to a case of, "Been that." That said, the CD encased in the handsome hardcover booklet does have a certain degree of collector appeal. The sombre Liszt Rhapsody is beautifully played in its CD premiere. Never previously released in any format, the Bach concerto may be inauthentic in style but the interplay between soloists Christian Ferras and BPO leader Michel Schwalbé is fascinating. The Brahms Fourth gets a splendid outing from 1964, a version that many might not already have.

Rated on its own, the DVD would be lucky to walk away with two stars. With the exception of the 1973 Unitel film of a "mock-live" Beethoven Fifth (already issued on DVD) and a genuine and pleasing concert performance of Suppé's Light Cavalry overture, the rest of the programme consists of "bleeding chunks" to promote forthcoming releases. Of these, four minutes' worth of Jon Vickers from Pagliacci and a quarter of an hour from Rheingold appear to offer the most promising prospects. There is also eleven minutes of Alexis Weissenberg in the Rachmaninov concerto.

Other attractions of the centenary are listed in the booklet. A look at the "selected discography" indicates that it is pretty much business as usual as far as Karajan's most memorable recordings. It is a pity that DG seems to have lost enthusiasm for re-mastering into SACD since 2003. More of Karajan's most durable hits need to be heard in super audio, especially the Schumann and Bruckner symphony cycles and his indelible accounts of Mahler's Sixth and Ninth. His last recordings (with the VPO) of Bruckner 7 and 8 would be spectacular in surround sound.

The Lebrecht Manifesto: Herbert von Karajan is the man that Norman Lebrecht loves to hate. The blaze of publicity surrounding DG's Karajan celebrations incited an outburst in his column of January 30 which dripped with vitriol. Certain to please the misinformed and prejudiced, the details are not worth bothering about except his concluding statement that, "Herbert von Karajan was a moral and creative nullity." The towering intellectual, Sir Isaiah Berlin once told Richard Osborne that he considered Karajan to be "an ignoble conductor," yet Berlin's concise summation of the conductor: "He was a genius - with a whiff of sulphur," is surely closer to the heart of the matter than Norman's rant.

The truth is out there: Richard Osborne's biography of Karajan was published in 1998 (Herbert von Karajan: A Life in Music). Lord Yehudi Menuhin had this to say about the book: "...A monumental work of scholarship, of integrity, of sympathy born of respect and humanity. A woven tapestry rather than a mere listing of events and accomplishments, it reveals itself quietly and objectively, leaving the reader to judge a man whose personality was inseparable from the history of the age and his own background." If you care about the Karajan legacy and possess an interest in music making in the 20th century, read this book before buying a single commemorative disc. The Pimlico trade paperback can be ordered from reputable bookshops at a cost of about $65. Online, offers a hardbound edition at half that price.

Meanwhile from EMI: While DG is being very selective in choosing commemorative albums and boxes, EMI is re-releasing...everything. Two mega-boxes (orchestral: 88 CDs and vocal/choral/opera: 62 CDs) at super-budget prices will be offered along with a number of sampler sets. More about that later...

-Stephen Habington

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