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ClassicsOnline Home » MENDELSSOHN, Felix: Violin Concertos / Violin Sonata in F Minor (Tianwa Yang, Descharmes, Sinfonia Finlandia Jyvaskyla, P. Gallois)
Filled with Mendelssohn’s signature freshness and lightness of touch, the Violin Concerto in D minor and the Sonata, Op 4 are youthful products but written with an assurance which is startling in its maturity. The substantial earlier concerto gives a foretaste of the originality and soaring inspiration which has made the Violin Concerto, Op 64 one of the most enduring works of its age. Acclaimed as “an unquestioned master of the violin” (American Record Guide), Tianwa Yang has quickly established herself as a leading international performer and recording artist, with highly acclaimed discs of works by Sarasate, Piazzolla and Wolfgang Rihm.
By David Hurwitz
Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809–1847)
Violin Concerto in E minor, Op 64 • Violin Concerto in D minor • Violin Sonata in F minor, Op 4
Born in Hamburg in 1809, eldest son of the banker Abraham Mendelssohn and grandson of the great Jewish thinker Moses Mendelssohn, Felix Mendelssohn, who took the additional name Bartholdy on his baptism as a Christian, Heine’s ticket of admission to European culture, was brought up in Berlin, where his family settled in 1812. Here he enjoyed the wide cultural opportunities that his family offered, through their own interests and connections. Mendelssohn’s early gifts, manifested in a number of directions, included marked musical precocity, both as a player and as a performer, at a remarkably early age. These exceptional abilities received every encouragement from his family and their friends, although Abraham Mendelssohn entertained early doubts about the desirability of his son taking the profession of musician. These reservations were in part put to rest by the advice of Cherubini in Paris and by the increasing signs of the boy’s musical abilities and interests.
Mendelssohn’s early manhood brought the opportunity to travel, as far south as Naples and as far north as The Hebrides, with Italy and Scotland both providing the inspiration for later symphonies. His career involved him in the Lower Rhine Festival in Düsseldorf and a period as city director of music, followed, in 1835, by appointment as conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig. Here he was able to continue the work he had started in Berlin six years earlier, when he had conducted a revival of Bach’s St Matthew Passion. Leipzig was to provide a degree of satisfaction that he could not find in Berlin, where he returned at the invitation of King Friedrich Wilhelm IV in 1841. In Leipzig once more, in 1843, he established a new Conservatory, spending his final years there, until his death at the age of 38 on 4 November 1847, six months after the death of his gifted and beloved sister Fanny.
It was once fashionable to denigrate Mendelssohn for his very facility as a composer and to belittle the early compositions as merely the work of a talented child. The two early concertos, the Concerto for violin and piano and the Violin Concerto in D minor, need no excuse. The latter was written in 1822, the year in which Mendelssohn wrote the seventh and eighth of his twelve String Symphonies, to be completed the following year. This was the year of the Piano Concerto in A minor, two Piano Quartets and a comic opera. Mendelssohn was thirteen when he wrote the Violin Concerto in D minor, designing it for his friend Eduard Rietz, but considerations of age may be forgotten in hearing music that makes a mature enough addition to concerto repertoire.
Eduard Rietz, who gave Mendelssohn violin lessons, was born in Berlin in 1802, the son of a violinist in the court orchestra, his first teacher, before his further study with Viotti’s pupil Pierre Rode, who spent the years from 1814 to 1819 in Berlin. In 1819 Rietz joined the Berlin court orchestra and became its leader until his resignation in 1825, after disagreements with Spontini, who felt his position threatened by champions of Weber and German music. In 1826 he founded the orchestra that was to become the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and in 1829 led the orchestra at Mendelssohn’s revival of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, for which he and his younger brother Julius had copied the parts. The death of Eduard Rietz from tuberculosis in 1832 caused Mendelssohn much sadness, but he was later able to rely on the support of Julius Rietz, a cellist, as assistant conductor in Düsseldorf. The association of Mendelssohn with the Rietz brothers was a close one. They played quartets together at the Mendelssohns’ house in Berlin and it was for Eduard that Mendelssohn wrote the Violin Concerto in D minor and to whom he dedicated his Octet and Violin Sonata in F minor. In 1853 a manuscript copy of two movements and part of the third movement of the concerto was given to the violinist Ferdinand David by Mendelssohn’s widow and was later inherited by David’s son. In 1951 the work came into the possession of Yehudi Menuhin, who was responsible for its revival and publication. The concerto was preserved in fuller and slightly different form in an autograph once in the possession of Clara Schumann, now held, with other early Mendelssohn autographs, in Berlin.
Scored for solo violin and strings, the concerto has much in common with concertos by violinist-composers such as Rode or Kreutzer, works now generally familiar only to violinists. After the orchestral exposition, with its strongly marked principal subject, the soloist has new material to offer, before going on to rapid and characteristic passage-work in a movement that is in broadly classical form. Much use is made of the opening figures, based on triads, recurring in the orchestra, while the soloist offers necessary embellishment. This initial motif is able to provide the basis of dramatic tension, as the movement unfolds. The slow movement, in D major, starts with an orchestral introduction, followed by the entry of the soloist, suggesting at first the key of D minor before moving to B flat major. The triplet figuration introduced by the soloist gives a foretaste of characteristic figuration to be found in the Violin Concerto in E minor of 1844, as does the placing of the cadenza before the return of the first section. The final Allegro has a spirited principal theme, suggesting an energetic dance in its vigorous rhythms. The soloist has a brief solo passage, punctuated by the orchestra, to resume briefly, before the return of the principal theme, proceeding to passages of technical brilliance to bring the concerto to an end.
The Violin Sonata in F minor, written in 1823, starts with an Adagio introduction for the violin alone, followed by an Allegro moderato in which the piano offers the first subject, leading to an A flat major second subject, announced by the piano over a sustained bass note. The repeated exposition is duly followed by a central development and a recapitulation in which the second subject, now in F major, is followed by a minor key closing section. The slow movement, in A flat major, is opened by the piano statement of the wistful main theme, then taken up by the violin. A short piano cadenza leads to an E flat major section, with a violin melody accompanied by triplet figuration from the piano. This ends with more dramatic intensity, before a return to the original key and thematic material, now varied. The last movement opens emphatically, its opening section repeated, after which the opening motif provides the substance for contrapuntal exploration. An Adagio cadenza for the violin alone is capped by the forceful closing section.
Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor was written for Ferdinand David, leader of the Leipzig Orchestra, during the late summer of 1844. Its composition discharged a debt of gratitude to the violinist and expressed, too, something of the relief the composer felt at the end of a period that had involved him in the troublesome musical politics of Berlin. Leipzig was home. The concerto opens, after two brief bars of orchestral accompaniment, with the entry of the soloist playing the principal theme, which is only then taken up by the full orchestra. There are other structural innovations in the movement, with the placing of the cadenza at the end of the central development section, instead of the end of the movement, and with the use of a sustained bassoon note to link the first movement to the second. The deftly scored slow movement, of masterly economy in means, leads to a brief transitional section, followed by a spirited last movement that offers a fine example of that lightness of touch that Mendelssohn had shown time and again, not least in his famous Overture to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
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