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 (double bass))
rec. June-July 2009, Lutheran Church, Deventer, Netherlands
QUINTONE Q09004 [68:20] 

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 this movement.
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
An eloquent and convincing plea for lesser-known fruits of Mendelssohn's youth.