Prom 67: Marvellous Mendelssohn from Chailly and the Gewandhaus Orchestra

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mendelssohn: Nikolaj Znaider (violin), Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra / Riccardo Chailly (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 1.9.2012 (GD)

Overture ‘Ruy Blas’ Op. 95
Violin Concerto in E minor Op. 68
Overture ‘The Fair Melusine, Op. 32
Symphony No 5 in D minor, ‘Reformation’

Unlike Mendelssohn’s verdant Symphony No 4, the ‘Italian’, the ‘Reformation’ is still only given occasional concert performances. It is, as was evident tonight, a fine work with a rousing and solemn finale based on the Lutheran chorale ‘Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott’ ( A mighty fortress is our God). Tovey, who greatly admired Mendelssohn’s music, considered this symphony to be one of the composer’s lesser works with a rather contrived and archaic finale. This was also the view of many great conductors, including, perhaps surprisingly, Klemperer. Beecham conducted it occasionally, but it was Toscanini who brought the work into general recognition in the first half of of the last century, with many fine performances and recordings. Of course, Toscanini played the version which was revised by the composer in 1832 for a Berlin performance., and that revised version has been the one which has been most often played since.

Mendelssohn was very sensitive to criticism of his works, and the symphony was criticised as being too four-square with too much counterpoint. Indeed a planned performance in Paris, in 1832 under the great Habeneck was sabotaged by the orchestra who regarded it as unplayable. As well as being sensitive to criticism Mendelssohn was always striving for perfection, and would probably have made a new version of the symphony despite adverse criticism. He even made a later version of the ‘Italian’ Symphony which has always been considered a masterpiece. So what was the point tonight of playing the restored original versions not just of the symphony but of the two overtures ? Well, it was probably a lot to do with our ‘completist’ musical culture with its predilection to play everything the composer wrote, as well as sometimes, what he did not write! But that was not completely the impression tonight, especially in the case of the symphony with its original extended flute recitative, which Riccardo Chailly has described as a ‘two-minute fourth movement, a sort of cadenza for solo flute and orchestra’. And indeed it was such a pleasant experience to hear this charming interlude. It could also be seen as an addition to the flute repertoire. Special praise here must go to the playing of the orchestra’s principal flautist Katalin Stefula.

But, if given a choice between the original and revised versions I would probably go for the latter. The flute cadenza movement is very nice but Mendelssohn’s revision seems more cogent, more symphonic with its marvellous lead in to the main chorale theme of the finale on the flute in the the major, from the minor of the Andante. The other major change is in the finale itself. Instead of the restatement of the movement’s opening theme, linked to the Lutheran chorale theme, we have what Chailly calls a ‘joyous march’. Also there are some dynamic changes to the coda. Here I definitely prefer the revision where the blazing D major coda is made to sound more dynamically and rhythmically unified. But overall Chailly gave a superb rendition of the symphony, never dragging or sounding pompous as is sometimes the case. He inflected the whole score with a kind of buoyancy, sharpness and clarity. And in the more refective music, such as the ‘Dresden Amen’ in the work’s opening (famously used by Wagner in ‘Parsifal’), there was a transparency and lucidity, especially in the strings, which one rarely hears. The second movement Allegro vivace, a kind of shortened scherzo, was notable for its rhythmic elegance and lightness, with superb woodwind playing. In the finale itself I felt that Chailly played down the movement’s tendency to sound too grandiose. But this certainly did not result in any kind of loss in terms of power and triumph, which are essential elements in the movement. Here and throughout the concert the Leipzig orchestra played superbly responding to every nuance of both composer and conductor. And this is only to be expected from an orchestra with a strong Mendelssohn traditon going back to 1835 when Mendelssohn himself became the orchestra’s Municipal Music Director. – a post he maintained until his early death in 1847. As already stated, ultimately I prefer the 1832 revision, but I would also say that Mendelssohn’s original, heard tonight, is well worth hearing, not only in itself, but as helping to understand the revised version more – a kind of genealogy of the evolution of a symphony, and how it came into being.

Renditions of Mendelssohn’s Second Violin Concerto (it is nearly always forgotten that the young Mendelssohn composed an earlier D minor violin concerto) don’t come much finer than the one heard tonight. The young Danish violinist Nikolaj Znaider never played as a virtuoso with orchestral accompaniment, he always played in dialogue with orchestra, although there was virtuosity (never of the showy kind) when required. This was the only work in tonight’s Prom which was not given in its ‘original’ edited version. Although there is quite an adequate original version, the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto as we know it stands on its own as a superbly crafted composition worthy to rank beside Beethoven’s or Brahms’s violin concertos. Although it is not in the grand manner of those famous concertos, it is a model of economy and innovation, the first being the songful entry of the soloist at the very start of the concerto with no grand ritornello.

Everything about this performance hit the right target (forgive the military metaphor). From the A minor marching rhythm to a terse recitative in the violin, leading magically to the aria-like F major of the second subject in the first movement; to the ‘breadth and dignity’ of the Andante; the wonderful linking of this movement to the finale, in the form of a short but lyrical Allegretto; to the brilliant Molto molto vivace of the finale,with its subtle key shifts and high spirits ( not sounding at all Teutonic), everything seemed to play itself…the art of interpretation which conceals interpretation. Again and again I noted that the wonderful playing of the Leipzig orchestra was almost beyond description; it must be a great privilege for any soloist to play with them. Znaider was impressive in all registers from the brilliant runs and key changes of the finale, to the hushed warmth and poise of the Andante. Here and there I could have done with a bit more tonal diversity and exuberance, as heard a couple of years ago in a splendid performance from the young Russian Alina Ibragimova, but Znaider’s understated eloquence and musical insights were superb in their own right. Needless to say Riccardo Chailly conducted with a true understanding of the works overall contour and idiom.

The two overtures played at the beginning of each half of the Prom, were most welcome. It is amazing to discover, from the Prom programme, that the tuneful and eloquent ‘Ruy Blas, based on a verse drama by Victor Hugo, has rarely been performed at the Proms, and tonight’s earlier version not at all. The longer, more dramatic overture ‘The Fair Melusine’ has not fared much better, again receiving its first Prom performance of the earlier version, although Beecham quite regularly played both overtures, and Toscanini gave a few performances of the ‘Fair Melusine’ overture. Again Chailly made these works come alive, so to speak. ‘Ruy Blas’ had a swift, agile elegance, with superbly deft rhythms,. And the ‘Fair Melusine’ was perfectly integrated, dramatic – but not over-dramatic in a bashed out sense, as was sometimes the case with Beecham. I hope these and other fine overtures by Mendelssohn (I am thinking in particular of the ‘Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage’ Overture) will start to be performed more regularly at orchestral concerts.

Throughout the two overtures and ‘Reformation’ Symphony Christopher Hogwood’s editing of the prepublished scores for the Barenreiter edition was in total keeping with Mendelssohn’s sound, style and idiom. It consists mainly of small but effective details such as the restoration of a number of small cuts, and minor emendations around dynamics and orchestral details.

As a fitting encore Chailly gave a rousing rendition of the ‘Wedding March’ from Mendelssohn’s music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Overall a remarkable Prom giving us a range of new and fresh insights into Mendelssohn’s ever fascinating music.

Geoff Diggines