(1809 - 1847)
The Young Genius
Sextet for piano and strings in D, op. 110 [29:17]
Sonata for clarinet and piano in E flat [22:31]
Piano Trio in c minor [16:31]
Van Swieten Society ((Bart van Oort (fortepiano), Frank van den
Brink (clarinet), Franc Polman, Igor Rukhadze (violin), Bernadette
Verhagen, Ruben Sanderse (viola), Job ter Haar (cello), Tomoki Sumiya
rec. June-July 2009, Lutheran Church, Deventer, Netherlands
In 1850 the conductor and pianist Hans von Bülow wrote:
"People overvalued Mendelssohn during his lifetime ... no living
artist had received so many tokens of veneration and enthusiasm
from all quarters. At present, after his death, people undervalue
him, and worthless men - who flattered him during his life -
are now beginning to belittle his merits and to diminish the
public's regard for him through their malice and envious spite."
This has led to the general view of a decline in his reputation
after his death. In fact there were some critical voices in
his lifetime as well. I found an interesting article by Sinéad
Dempsey (University of Manchester) who quotes several voices
from Germany who doubted Mendelssohn's greatness, and considered
him a talent rather than a genius. She also shows how different
the appreciation in England was in comparison with Germany.
She sees the origin in what has to be considered one of the
main features of Mendelssohn's music: his great attachment to
music of the past.
This was partly due to his teacher Carl Friedrich Zelter, who
had been a pupil of Johann Sebastian Bach's pupil Johann Philipp
Kirnberger. Through him Mendelssohn became acquainted with the
music of Bach and of his sons, especially Carl Philipp Emanuel.
He was also greatly attracted to the music of the Viennese classical
masters Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. This interest in music
of the past was used against him. The advocates of 'modern'
music saw this as tokens of epigonism. During the 20th century
a more balanced view developed, but his music was still often
associated with sweetness and sentimentality.
It seems to me that performances with period instruments have
greatly contributed to the restoration of the appreciation of
his music. His Lieder ohne Worte - like many other pieces
from that time - don't come off that well on a modern concert
grand. On the other side of the spectrum, his choral works -
and certainly his oratorios - seriously suffer from performances
with big operatic voices and massive choirs and orchestras.
If I'm not mistaken performers rooted in early music have less
difficulty in developing the right approach to his music, precisely
because of his roots in the 18th century.
The pieces recorded by the Van Swieten Society take profit from
the use of period instruments. They bear witness to Mendelssohn's
precocity as a composer. All three were written in his youth:
the Piano Trio dates from 1820, the Sextet and the Sonata from
1824. The influences from earlier times are evident, and result
in a great amount of clarity and transparency. The debate about
Mendelssohn's style has often circled around the subject of
intellect versus emotion. His critics in the romantic era felt
that the latter was subservient to the former or even almost
completely absent. Listening to his music I experience this
differently: I find his music much easier to appreciate than
that of his contemporaries because of the balance between intellect
and emotion - a quality which is also characteristic of the
music of Mendelssohn’s hero, Johann Sebastian Bach.
The Sextet in D is original in its scoring for pianoforte,
violin, two violas, cello and double bass. The piano has the
main role, and some have considered it close to a solo concerto.
The virtuosity of the keyboard part doesn't overshadow the string
parts, though. In this performance the Van Swieten Society proves
that the use of period instruments, with gut strings, and with
a sparing use of vibrato, creates an ideal balance and results
in a transparency which makes all the string parts clearly audible.
The last movement is remarkable because towards the end Mendelssohn
returns to the previous minuetto before he brings the movement
to a close. It greatly contributes to the dramatic quality of
The part of the clarinet in the Sonata in E flat is not
overly virtuosic. At the time several composers wrote music
for the famous virtuosos Heinrich Baermann and his son Carl,
but this piece seems not to have been written for him. A copy
mentions a Berlin banker and patron of the arts as its dedicatee,
and in the liner-notes Sylvia Berry suggests he could have been
an amateur clarinettist. In many sonatas for piano and a melody
instrument from the first half of the 19th century the latter
is subservient to the former, but that is not the case here.
Both instruments are treated on equal terms. Typically romantic
is the subject of the andante, a folksong known as Schäfer's
Klaglied which was also used by Carl Maria von Weber. It
is presented at the start of this movement by the clarinet,
without participation of the piano. The sonata ends with a sparkling
allegro moderato. This sonata emphasizes the lyrical features
of the clarinet and Frank van der Linden lets his clarinet -
a copy of a Grenser - sing beautifully.
The last piece is the Piano Trio in c minor, but again
in an unconventional scoring, with a viola instead of the usual
cello. The opening movement refers to the Kyrie of Mozart's
Requiem, the second movement is reminiscent of A Midsummer
Night's Dream. The third and last movements belie the reproach
of a lack of emotion in Mendelssohn's music: both movements
are of considerable depth and feeling. The piano part is notable
for its lack of virtuosity. Bart van Oort believes that this
trio could originally have been written for another scoring,
a string quartet or a string symphony. The reason for this assumption
is the thinness of the piano writing, which is often confined
to just two parts. The lightness of the second movement and
the expression of the two last movements are perfectly exposed
by the three members of the Van Swieten Society.
I have heard this ensemble quite often, and apart from its technical
assurance and musical persuasiveness the creativity of its programming
belongs to its strengths. That is also the case here, as they
deliver an eloquent and convincing plea for lesser-known fruits
of Mendelssohn's youth.
Johan van Veen