Five of the best lesser-known Mendelssohn works to discover
The Romantic composer was a master of symphonies, concertos, piano music and chamber music. We take a look back through his compositional output, and choose some of his greatest works and recordings.
Violin Concerto in D minor
Such is the popularity of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor that people tend to overlook that, as a 13 year-old, he also wrote one in D minor – in fact, the music world was almost entirely unaware of it until Yehudi Menuhin reintroduced it to the concert hall in 1951. Scored for violin solo and strings and generally genial throughout, it’s rounded off by a cheekily charming Allegro finale.
Tamsin Waley-Cohen (violin); Orchestra of the Swan/David Curtis
The Six Organ Sonatas were published in England in 1845, over 20 years before César Franck’s Six Pièces, works that many assume kick-started the modern organ revolution. In fact, it was Mendelssohn who first gave the organ a 19th-century lease of life with these half-dozen gems, each requiring technical and musical mastery. If only British organs had been up to the task of playing them (most suitable instruments had heavy actions and lacked pedalboards), Mendelssohn’s Sonatas would have gained momentum much sooner.
William Whitehead (organ)
Chandos CHAN 10532
Six Duets, Op. 63
If the superlative lyrical talents of Schubert and Schumann tend to cast Mendelssohn’s solo lieder in shadow, his vocal duets deserve the limelight. In the sublime Six Duets, Op. 63 (1845) for two voices and piano, Mendelssohn sets texts by poets including Heine and Burns. His melodic gift takes wing in the bittersweet Abschiedslied der Zugvögel and in the heartfelt Volkslied, while in the dancing Herbstlied Mendelssohn sets words by his friend Carl Klingemann.
Lucy Crowe (soprano), William Berger (baritone), Iain Burnside (piano)
St Paul (oratorio)
Mendelssohn points to his inspiration pretty clearly at the outset of this 1836 oratorio as he launches us into an overture based on Bach’s ‘Wachet auf’. After that, we follow the life of St Paul from his conversion to Christianity through to his martyrdom. It’s a work that has much of the dramatic flair of Mendelssohn’s hero’s own oratorios, and is capped off by sublime arias such as the baritone’s ‘Gott sei mir gnädig’.
Maria Cristina Kiehr, Werner Gura etc; Kammerchor Stuttgart, Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen/Frieder Bernius
Cello Sonata No. 2
Even those usually driven to distraction by Mendelssohn’s penchant for Bachian chorales can’t fail to be struck by a sense of reverence as spread chords in the piano introduce the Adagio third movement of his Second Cello Sonata from 1843. The cello then takes over with an achingly beautiful melody before – and here’s the masterstroke – the chorale returns to the piano, but this time in accompaniment to the cello. An inspired moment, worthy of JS Bach himself.
Paul Watkins (cello), Huw Watkins (piano)
This article originally appeared in the June 2016 issue of BBC Music Magazine.