Last month turned out to tap a mother lode of material for those interested in the orchestral writings of Felix Mendelssohn. The Swedish label BIS took its abundant collection of eleven singles covering the five symphonies, the thirteen string symphonies, and all of the concertos and packaged them in a single box. While this item has not yet been listed on Amazon.com, it is available as a download package, complete with a PDF file of the accompanying 124-page booklet, from ClassicsOnline. On a somewhat more modest scale, Hyperion released a new recording of the Opus 64 E minor violin concerto performed by Alina Ibragimova with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. To distinguish this recording from all other recordings (as they say at Passover), she coupled Opus 64 with Mendelssohn’s earlier (1822) concerto in D minor; and Jurowski separated these two concertos (presented in reverse chronological order on the CD) with the Opus 26 “Hebrides” concert overture in B minor, which Mendelssohn completed in 1832.
So much Mendelssohn is best faced with a certain amount of context. One particular reference point comes from Bonnie Hampton, who, in her one-week residency at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music last month, coached two student chamber music groups that had prepared Mendelssohn’s music, one the Opus 49 piano trio in D minor and the other his final string quartet in F minor, assigned the Opus 80 number posthumously. While her focus was on chamber music, her observation about Mendelssohn’s almost ferocious level of activity (“burning his candle at both ends,” in her words) applies to the full scope of his work, including both composition and performance, not to mention public relations.
Born in 1809 into a prominent Jewish family (his grandfather was the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn), both ends of the candle were lit at an early age, beginning with piano lessons from his mother when he was six. By the time he reached the age of ten, he was studying counterpoint and composition with Carl Friedrich Zelter in Berlin. Without pushing the metaphor too far, one might say that the two ends of the candle were the influences of two highly productive composers, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart through his mother and Johann Sebastian Bach through Zelter. Add to that the accomplishments of his grandfather, and one can imagine Mendelssohn dreaming of such productivity even before he was a teenager.
Indeed, the first major outpouring of that productivity came with those thirteen string symphonies (the last of which was only a single movement), composed between 1821 and 1823. These are relatively lightweight works, which were ignored for over a century. However, they make it clear that Mendelssohn’s capacity for counterpoint had thrived under Zelter’s tutelage; and, if none of these symphonies rises to the level of Mozart’s symphonies, they capture at least some of the spirit of his divertimenti, composed more for background than for concert occasions. Nevertheless, while Mozart never seemed to run out of inventive tricks, even in those divertimenti (no matter how many movements he had to provide), Mendelssohn’s string symphonies give the impression that they all share a common deep structure whose surface structure could be tweaked to provide distinguishing features. (From an analytical point of view, this is not strictly true. However, while the serious listener can be engaged by a full CD of Mozart divertimenti, a similar serving from the string symphonies is likely to lose its verve after the first or second on the CD.) This is the eager young Mendelssohn going for quantity over quality.
This is also the time frame of his earliest concerto efforts, not only the D minor violin concerto but also an A minor piano concerto and a D minor “double” concerto for violin, piano, and string orchestra. These were then followed by the two concertos for two pianos and orchestra, the E major (1823) and the A-flat major (1824), the second of which was composed in the same year as his first symphony for full orchestra (Opus 11 in C minor). These are best approached as transitional works, still falling back on Mendelssohn’s facility in mastering grammatical complexity, particularly where counterpoint is concerned, but offering little by way of a compelling rhetorical “voice.”
When Hampton talked about how that “voice” emerged as Mendelssohn matured, she described it in terms of nervous energy. That obsession with productivity had progressed from youthful enthusiasm to psychological tension, and in the BIS collection it emerges with the greatest clarity in the subsequent symphonies. One might attribute at least some of that tension as growing out of his exposure to the harsh geology of Scotland, confronting a natural world that seemed to defy the beneficence of the Creator in the opening chapters of Genesis. In many respects Opus 26 (particularly as Jurowski conducts it on his new Hyperion release) is not only a “concert” overture but also a “prologue” to the Opus 56 “Scottish” symphony in A minor; and I am surprised that I have not yet encountered a conductor willing to structure a program around that coupling.
At this point it is important to note that, in the BIS collection, the orchestral symphonies are interpreted by one conductor, while the rest of the collection involves a chamber orchestra with a different conductor. The symphonies are performed by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Andrew Litton (with considerable vocal support for the Opus 52 “Hymn of Praise” symphony in B-flat major). Litton has a keen sense of resource management to capture that sense of psychological tension; and that extends to his very first track, which is the Opus 95 “Ruy Blas” concert overture. Litton’s appreciation of this necessary rhetorical stance combined with his appreciation of the many nuances that emerge from Mendelssohn’s approach to instrumentation make him a first-rate advocate for the mature Mendelssohn.
The remaining recordings are performed by the concerto soloists with the Amsterdam Sinfonietta under the baton of Lev Markiz. These are all satisfactory accounts; but they definitely have more to do with prodigious display, rather than any urgent need to take that rhetorical stance. Thus, while the recording of the Opus 64 violin concerto is distinguished for using the original 1844 score, the collaboration of Jurowski and Ibragimova on Hyperion goes significantly further down the rhetorical path to capture that aforementioned nervous energy of the man who had become the principal conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.