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Seen and Heard Concert Review

Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Gade: Soloists of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Elizabeth Wallfisch (leader), David Watkin (cello), Howard Moody (fortepiano), Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 6th February, 2005 (AO)

Wagner owed much to Mendelssohn but needed to denigrate his “complex artificialities.” Unfortunately, the effete image took root, for Mendelssohn's style was alien to the taste for flamboyance that set in after his death. Yet Mendelssohn was a tangential composer who stood at the cusp of the Classical and the Romantic. Beethoven might have seemed the more radical revolutionary, but Mendelssohn was innovative in expressing the sensibilities of the early Romantic era. Mendelssohn, moreover, warm-heartedly encouraged other composers as different as Schumann, Gade and Berlioz.

The second concert of the South Bank's Mendelssohn series was based on a programme from an 1864 concert at the Gewandhaus, Leipzig. The concert began with Gade's Sextet in E flat performed from “new manuscript” as it had only been completed the year before. Gade inherited Mendelssohn's place as conductor at Leipzig, though by this time he had returned to Denmark. Even with musicians as superb as the OAE soloists, it was clean and sparse, a spic and span cottage, but no one lived inside. A far better vehicle for virtuoso talent was Beethoven's Cello Sonata in A, Op 69. What a joy to hear Beethoven in full confident flow. The tender melodies and counter melodies were performed by cello and pianoforte with cordial ebb and flow like a deep conversation between friends. Even the scherzo is unruffled: in his programme notes, Richard Wigmore wonders if Gade had this in mind when he wrote the sextet we heard earlier.

But it was the Mendelssohn Octet we'd come for. Written when the composer was only sixteen, it is a manifesto, a statement of intent from an ebullient youngster. The quotes from Mozart, Bach and Haydn were clear, all the more joyful when interpreted in an already distinctive Mendelssohn style. Even the use of the octet form is imaginative because it allows for richer textures and adventure. On the manuscript, Mendelssohn wrote that it should be played by all instruments, “In symphonic orchestral style. Pianos and fortes must be strictly observed and more strongly emphasized than is usual.” Indeed, Wallfisch pointed out this element of benign parody and high spirits. Her own solos were dazzling, and they dominate the score, but each player had his or her own chance to work and rework the themes as well. The contrasts are vivid. At one moment cello and viola play in a whisper, then suddenly all eight players burst forth in wild abandon. Similarly, the stillness of the andante is shattered by the heady scherzo. It was possibly written in a single moment of inspiration. Early that summer, Mendelssohn had visited his old friend Goethe and it is more than likely that they discussed the Faust story. Fanny said that Felix was thinking of the Walpurgisnacht scene when he wrote this section. So this scherzo is an early precursor of Romantic fascination with Goethe's Faust, which was to recur again and again in the following hundred years.

And as for the playing? I was sitting near a musician who had himself played the Octet and had waited months for this concert. He was beside himself with rapture at the brilliance of the playing and the warmth of the OAE instruments.

 

Anne Ozorio


 

 



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)