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Joachim MENDELSON (1892-1943)
Symphony No. 2 (1939) [20:50]
Quintet for oboe, violin, viola, cello, and piano (1939) [16:24]
Sonata for violin and piano (1937) [13:52]
Chamber Symphony (1938) [15:50]
Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Jürgen Bruns
Tatiana Blome (piano), Ulrike Petersen (violin), Claudio Corbach (cello), Ignacy Miecznikowski (viola), Frédéric Tardy (oboe)
rec. 2010/11, Lutosławski Concert Studio, Polish Radio, Warsaw; Radio Berlin Brandenburg RBB, Berlin
EDA 040 [67:16]

The Polish composer Joachim Mendelson spent time in Paris between the two World Wars, returning to Warsaw in 1935 to teach. In 1943 - this according to Frank Harders-Wuthenow's booklet note - he was killed in the Warsaw Ghetto, and "all his personal documents and manuscripts were lost." Only those of his works published in Paris -- the four scores presented here, plus a string quartet available on EDA 034 -- have survived. The dates in the headnote, again as per the booklet, represent the dates of publication.

Among the present program in mixed genres, the Chamber Symphony proves the most substantial piece. Indeed, I'm not sure what the composer considered "chamber" about it: the musical gestures are big, as is the scoring, with its ominous brass reinforcements. The aspirational first movement presages the American postwar symphonists, contrasting aggressive passages with broader, more lyrical writing. The Larghetto begins with a searching English horn solo, on which flute and clarinet comment with unstable flourishes; the strings' answering paragraph brings stillness, along with more flourishes. This score, like the others here, has no formal scherzo, but the finale's scherzando main theme serves a similar function; some vaguely Expressionist turns colour the harmony.

The other works on the program -- each, like the Chamber Symphony, in three movements -- take in all manner of influences. The opening of the Second Symphony throws at us, in short order, an angular, disturbed theme; harsh "modern" brass outbursts; and passing bits of surprising lushness, all set again a comparatively sparse second theme. The finale suggests funhouse-mirror Mozart with lighter moments. The music sounds like nothing you've heard before, precisely because it sounds like everything you've heard before.

Amazingly, the effect isn't jumbled: somehow, the progression of episodes makes internal sense. In the principal Allegros, propelled by irregular motor rhythms, the second theme is always clearly intelligible as such, though it's less easy to pinpoint the boundaries of the development. In each movement of the symphony, a well-wrought, light-textured passage for winds provides an expressive contrast. A peculiar stylistic tic is the avoidance of explicitly tonal resolution: rhythmic and harmonic direction, rather than emphatic unisons, provide finality at cadences.

Mendelson's eclecticism plays particularly well in the "piano quintet." Its nonstandard instrumental complement allows for a variety of concertante oppositions, juxtaposing the piano against the strings, the strings against the oboe, or the oboe against everyone else. Purely orchestral effects, like oboe-over-pizzicato-strings, also come into play. The piano variously furnishes the music's underlying momentum, or suggests grand Romantic surges (it does similar things in the Violin Sonata). Beautiful, broad-limbed melodies, in one instrument after another, form the heart of the central Molto lento espressivo. In the finale, the piano's ostinato chords yield to a skipping oboe figure; later, violinist Ulrike Petersen contributes gentle, sparkling high phrases.

The performances are expert, and the sound is excellent. I rather enjoyed this. You might, too.

Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is Principal Conductor of Lighthouse Opera in New York (

Previous review: Rob Barnett


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