The biographical parallels between Felix Mendelssohn and violin
virtuoso Ferdinand David are astonishing. Both were born in
Hamburg, David a year after the Mendelssohn, both into prosperous
Jewish families, and amazingly, even in the same house. When
Mendelssohn took over as conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus,
he sent for David who became the leader of the orchestra, the
latter retaining the post until long after his colleague's death.
Mendelssohn turned to David for advice in all matters relating
to the violin. Mendelssohn's concerto was written for him and
its solo part benefited greatly from his advice and editing
throughout the composition process.
No prizes then for guessing which famous concerto the works
on this CD resemble. The stylistic gap between Mendelssohn and
David is paper thin. More surprisingly, perhaps, the technical
proficiency of the two composers is also comparable. These are
works in which the violin always comes first, but David was
no slouch when it came to writing orchestral textures. Mendelssohn's
orchestra is perhaps a little more sophisticated, the counterpoint
of his beloved Bach a constant influence on the way that voices
interact. David is more inclined towards short snatches of obbligato
accompaniment from solo woodwind instruments, or consummately
structured pizzicato accompaniment textures from the string
section. The woodwind in particular get an impressive look in,
and you're never far from the Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's
Dream when they spin out their playful dances, especially
in the finales of the two Concertos.
One area where you would expect Mendelssohn to win hands down
is melody, but again David demonstrates that he really isn't
that far behind. Sure, the tunes aren't as memorable, but they
are long, gently flowing, and impeccably suited to the structural
contexts into which each is placed. In general, the structure
of these works is quite conventional, 'Classical' in the pejorative
sense, but that is perfectly adequate for what the composer
is setting out to do.
And what he is setting out to do is create vehicles for his
own virtuosity. It is clear from every bar of the solo line
that this is music written by a violinist who really knows what
he is doing. It is not uncommon to find double, triple and even
quadruple stopping in the solo parts of violin concertos, but
the sheer quantity here is unusual, as is the subtlety with
which it is added into the textures.
Given that the composer was both a virtuoso player and a proficient
composer, it is difficult to decide if the solo part is as difficult
to play as it sounds, but I'm inclined to think that it is.
Nevertheless, Hagai Shaham pulls off that great virtuoso trick
of making the music sound complex, but also making clear that
he has every note under his fingers and that he is not sweating
it. To non-violinist listeners, the greatest attraction of this
music is its lyricism, and Shaham always brings this to the
fore, especially in the exquisitely crafted middle movements.
There is a slight grain to his tone which is not unattractive,
in fact it creates an almost vocal quality to his lower register.
There are some endearing inflections in his playing, tiny portamento
slides, or delayed ornaments at the ends of phrases, no doubt
the sort of things that David himself indulged in, and done
with such taste and discretion that it is hard to complain.
Excellent playing from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra,
who again demonstrate that they are a force to be reckoned with.
No doubt years of performing Mendelssohn have set them up for
this music, there are still plenty of new notes to learn though.
I wonder if the 4th Concerto would benefit from a
smaller string section, although the addition of trombones to
the 5th makes their numbers just about right for
that work. It is to the credit of soloist, conductor and orchestra
alike that the synchronisation between them is faultless, especially
in unfamiliar repertoire.
One for Mendelssohn fans then. Like so many great artists, he
died before his time. It is gratifying, though, that his spirit
lived on in Leipzig in the work of his colleagues. This music
isn't quite up to the standards of Mendelssohn's mature music,
but it really is close. As in Richard Strauss's famous description
of his own status, Ferdinand David is not a first-rate composer,
but he is a first-rate second-rate composer.