Slovak National Symphony Orchestra
Felix Mendelssohn: Concerto for Violin and Strings in D minor, MWV 03
Felix Mendelssohn Concerto for Violin, Piano, and Orchestra in D minor, MWV 04
As R. Larry Todd makes clear in his magisterial biography of the composer (Oxford University Press, 2003), few composers have suffered such extreme and unjust swings in their reputation as Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847). He was lionized in his lifetime, particularly in Victorian England. But even before his death, the rise of anti-Semitism in German culture (first highlighted in Mendelssohn’s case by the attacks of Richard Wagner and culminating in the banning of his music by the Nazis), and later a broader anti-Victorian backlash, fuelled by Romantic and modernist sensibilities obsessed with rejectionist originality, all took a heavy toll. It is only in recent decades that we have begun to develop a fuller and more complex picture of this multi-faceted genius, not least through the rediscovery of works such as the two early concertos featured here. Written when the composer was only just entering his teens, they remind us that Mendelssohn was a child prodigy of a brilliance that in some ways eclipses even that of Mozart, at least in producing two indisputable masterpieces, the Octet for strings and the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when he was just sixteen and seventeen years old respectively.
Part of the problem with fully appreciating Mendelssohn’s achievements (which extended well beyond the musical domain, into the visual arts, poetry, and scholarship) is their astounding range and impact. He was a virtuoso pianist, violinist, and organist, and a seminal figure in the emerging discipline of conducting. Even leaving aside the influence of his own compositions, his broader fascination with Baroque music, and with J.S. Bach in particular (most notably his 1829 revival of the St Matthew Passion, which like much of Bach’s music had by that time fallen into obscurity), had enormous implications for the subsequent development of Western music.
Mendelssohn’s most famous and frequently performed orchestral work is the Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64, premiered in 1844. He completed eight concertos across his relatively short life, and five of them before his sixteenth birthday. While these early works are certainly not masterpieces at the level of the Op. 64 concerto, they are important nonetheless and worthy additions to the repertoire, particularly for the the rare combination of piano and violin soloists. Mendelssohn developed extraordinarily rapidly after progressing, apparently late in 1819, from imitative student exercises to composing his own music. Over the next two years he tackled increasingly ambitious large-scale works, including a number of string symphonies, a Singspiel, and his first concerto, in A minor for piano, written early in 1822. The Concerto for Violin and Strings in D minor followed later that year, and the Concerto for Violin and Piano, again in D minor, in the spring of 1823; the latter was also initially accompanied by strings only, but Mendelssohn later added parts for wind and timpani, in which version it is heard here. Even between these two concertos one can hear a striking advance in the young composer’s sense of originality and mastery.
The modern revival of the D minor Violin Concerto began in the early 1950s with Yehudi Menuhin, who owned one of the manuscript copies of the work and published an edition (Menuhin had himself been a remarkable child prodigy, of course). The concerto is in three movements. While it is, not surprisingly, strongly marked by classical models, particularly Mozart, it also reaches further back in the eighteenth century to pre-classical and Baroque influences. But it also draws on the more recent developments of the early nineteenth-century French violin school, which expanded the expressive range of the instrument through varied bowing techniques and other devices. Mendelssohn had been exposed to these developments by his violin teacher, Eduard Rietz, to whom the work is dedicated; Rietz was still a teenager himself at the time, and barely seventeen when in 1819 he was appointed leader of the Berlin court orchestra. (The two young men shared a passion for the music of J.S. Bach, and in 1829 Rietz would lead the orchestra in Mendelssohn’s performances of the St Matthew Passion — tragically, he died just three years later.) The concerto, however, is in no way a patchwork of influences or a pale imitation of its models. It evinces in many respects a distinctive voice, and Mendelssohn essays some unusual formal gambits, such as in reserving the introduction of a lyrical second theme for the soloist in the first movement, or having the third movement burst out of the second attacca. There is some dazzling and delicate filigree writing for the solo violin, especially in the last movement, the volatile cadenza of which also contains a hint of wildness. In marked contrast, the deeply expressive modulations of the slow movement suggest an emotional maturity surprising from a thirteen-year-old composer.
The Concerto for Violin and Piano (which also had to wait until the 1950s to be revived) is more conventionally structured in some ways, but laid out on a larger scale; it thus demands a more sophisticated control of its materials. While Mendelssohn had not yet attained the consistent maturity evidenced in the Concerto for Two Pianos in E major that would follow later in 1823 (written for Felix and his sister Fanny, also a remarkable composer in her own right), there is a compensatory exuberance and fantastical freshness to the invention that is hard to resist. The composer had already demonstrated his grasp of contemporary violin techniques in the solo concerto; here this is matched by a post-classical pianistic brilliance in the vein of Hummel (also a strong influence on the earlier A-minor solo concerto for the piano). But once again the composer puts a personal stamp on his models. An unusual feature, made possible by the combination of soloists, is the employment of extended passages for the violin and piano alone, without the orchestra. One such passage is the extraordinary central section of the slow second movement, a variation on the poignant main theme in which the violin soars above flowing piano figuration suggestive of a lyrical perpetuum mobile – it is as if this absorbed meditation could go on indefinitely. This is not the only passage in the work in which the young composer may seem occasionally at risk of getting lost in the beauty of his own ideas. Yet this listener at least is not inclined to write off such moments to youthful inexperience or self-indulgence — not least because an atmosphere of enchantment would resurface a few years later in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and go on to become a distinctively Mendelssohnian trait. The scintillating final movement that follows, its fiery main theme tinged with a Slavic accent, can also (with the benefit of hindsight) be heard to look forward to the mature Mendelssohn — it speaks eloquently of a composer on the threshold of greatness.
Copyright Alain Frogley