Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto

Felix Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto – which Philippe Quint will be performing with the Harrisburg Symphony this weekend (you can read Ellen Hughes' interview with him in her column at the Patriot-News) – is one of the great violin concertos and certainly one of the most popular in the repertoire. Usually, Beethoven’s and Brahms’ concertos would battle it out for 1st or 2nd place, followed by Mendelssohn’s and Tchaikovsky’s in 3rd or 4th place.

Curiously, each of these composers wrote only one violin concerto though Beethoven published five piano concertos; Brahms and Mendelssohn, both two; and Tchaikovsky officially three, though most people are surprised to find there’s a 2nd and 3rd piano concerto.

Here is the violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter talking about the Mendelssohn Concerto, recorded before her 2009 performance with the New York Philharmonic.
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While Mendelssohn solved the problem of applauding after the 1st movement by sustaining a bassoon note which then immediately starts the 2nd movement without a break, and a transition leads from the slow movement into the finale, it makes for some awkward editing between clips, here, but I wanted you to hear different artists, this time, playing the different movements.

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1st Movement… with Erick Friedman and a very-young-looking Seiji Ozawa conducting the London Symphony in this 1966 RCA recording
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2nd Movement… with Julia Fischer and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe conducted by Ivan Fischer in Paris, 2010

I also like this performance with Itzhak Perlman and David Zinman conducting the New York Philharmonic in a “Live from Lincoln Center” broadcast in 1982 but it can’t be embedded, so check out this link
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3rd Movement… Stefan Jackiw with the 2011 YouTube Symphony Orchestra

And if you don’t care for the soloist’s facial expressions and “Body English,” check out Jascha Heifetz, performing in 1939 with the California Junior Symphony, from the Oscar-nominated film, “They Shall Have Music.”
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Thinking about those other violin concertos, I thought it might be interesting to point out that, when Mendelssohn was composing his E Minor Concerto for his childhood friend, Ferdinand David (whom he’d invited to Leipzig to become the concertmaster of the Gewandhaus Orchestra), there weren’t many “great” violin concertos around to act as models.

Mendelssohn's Concerto was given its world premiere in 1845.

Brahms wrote his violin concerto in 1878 and Joachim gave it its world premiere in Vienna on New Year's Day, 1879. Tchaikovsky was also writing his concerto in 1878, though it wasn't premiered until 1881 and then also in Vienna.

Max Bruch's 1st Concerto, another very popular work, was written in 1866. Wieniawski's two concertos were premiered in 1853 and 1862.

However, three of Henri Vieuxtemps' five concertos were written between 1836 and 1844. Paganini wrote his five concertos between 1811 and 1830, but I don't know often they were performed by other violinists: besides, their extreme-bravura style was completely foreign to Mendelssohn's tastes.

One of the most prominent violinists of his day, Ludwig Spohr, something of a stylistic ancestor of Mendelssohn's (following more the path of Mozart than Beethoven, more classical than romantic in a Biedermeier age), published 15 violin concertos between 1806 and 1846, of which No. 8, the Gesangszene (Concerto in the Style of an Operatic Aria), was quite popular in its day.

And, yes, Beethoven wrote his Violin Concerto in 1806 but it quickly sank into oblivion, rarely if ever performed (for whatever reason) until Mendelssohn conducted a performance in London with Joseph Joachim who, at the time, was a month shy of his 13th birthday. This was in 1844. It was only then that other violinists began playing this masterpiece and it officially entered the repertoire.

Mendelssohn told David that he wanted to write him a concerto in 1838 – he already had an opening in E Minor that he couldn’t get out of his head – but it took him about 6 years before he was able to finish it. In the process, he worked carefully with David about technical aspects of the soloist’s part, but other commitments and tours and Mendelssohn’s own self-doubts kept him from working on it. He completed the concerto in September, 1844, but even up until the premiere the following March (which he was unable to conduct due to illness), he kept tinkering with details.

Consider Mendelssohn had started work on his “Italian” Symphony shortly after an inspiring trip to Italy in 1830 (he was 21), but he never published it during his lifetime, always going back to rewrite it, tinker with a detail here, rewriting the 1st two movements and then considering rewriting the last two, as well. Even by the time he died in 1847, he still had not been ready to finalize it, though he performed it frequently and it was always a success!

By the way, you can read more about Mendelssohn, his life and times at “Mendelssohn’s World,” part of an educational outreach project with Odin Rathnam and his West Branch Music Festival from 2009. This focused primarily on the Octet which Mendelssohn composed when he was 16, and a few other works for a performance at Harrisburg High School. Here, for instance is a condensed biography of the composer, and a post about the Mendelssohn houses in Berlin.

- Dick Strawser

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