My favourite Mendelssohn work is the Italian Symphony, because it is such a joy – it has all the Mendelssohnian colours and all those upbeat tempos. It’s fun and feels so great to conduct. But the work that really inspires me would have to be the A Midsummer Night’s Dream incidental music. I can’t believe somebody could write an overture like that at just 17; and then he came back to it in his maturity and wrote such colourful, descriptive music. The overture itself is sheer inventiveness, and overall the effervescent nature of the string writing and the unbridled energy is irresistible. And there’s an honesty and integrity that’s impossible not to warm to. The way he composes for the voice is also so beautiful and heartfelt. Many composers have written Shakespeare-inspired pieces, but only a few have done it justice. Mendelssohn’s music doesn’t just fit the play so well but it has its own life as a separate work.
Howard Shelley Pianist
Despite countless performances of Mendelssohn’s First Piano Concerto, I have never tired of its magic, beauty and drama. Aged 21, Mendelssohn was inspired to write this piece by a young lady with whom he ‘flirted dreadfully’. A work of great passion and virtuosity, the opening bars conjure a storm brewing fast, to which the dramatic piano entry adds flashes of lightning with its double-octave leaps – this writing was ground-breaking for its time. There follows a fabulously intimate slow movement, movingly orchestrated for just lower strings, horns and bassoons. The last movement is a moto perpetuo of the sort that Mendelssohn invented and wanted played as fast as possible, and the whole work is continuous with the links between movements, cleverly using the same trumpet and horn fanfare. Berlioz, incidentally, was so dismayed by the work’s success that he claimed that pianos would go on playing it even after being chopped up and put in the forge!
I really love the Second String Quintet in B flat. It is so rarely played and I don’t understand why. I could also have chosen the early D minor Violin Concerto, or the Double Concerto, where he tries to combine his counterpoint obsession with Italian opera, but this Quintet really is a masterpiece. When I first heard it a few years ago, I thought ‘wow!’. You have the whole of life in it. It’s completely different from the First Quintet, which is much more transparent and floating. The B flat Quintet is a whole symphony, but still has Mendelssohn’s typical flying and energetic language. The second viola brings a different colour, of sadness and darkness, into the music. Mendelssohn really knew how to write for strings, whereas Schubert and Brahms, for instance, didn’t care if it was possible on the instrument. Mendelssohn is still, I think, undervalued by audiences. For me, he is absolutely on the same level as Schubert and Mozart.
I’ve recorded almost all of Mendelssohn’s works, so it is very difficult to pick just one that has inspired me! I first came across his Lauda Sion (Op. 73) when I was recording my complete collection of his sacred works. It was written in 1846 as a setting of the Corpus Christi service and is almost a miniature oratorio. It uses every kind of choral setting – unison, chorales, call and response, and polyphony – and has wonderful orchestral and solo movements. It is based on an 11th-century Lauda Sion chant by St Thomas Aquinas, the tune of which runs through the whole work. Mendelssohn was very unhappy with its first performance, as it was just with a small church choir who weren’t very good. He hoped it would have a better performance in the future! Sadly, it is still not performed as often as it should be, and I hope people will rediscover it soon.
I’m a Mendelssohn nut, and he writes beautifully for the voice. He wrote quite a few songs and they’re wonderful. They’re not profound in the way that, say, Schubert is, but are generally quite short, more straightforward and melodic. By and large, he tends to echo the vocal melody in the top line of the piano, similar to Haydn. I find that intriguing, because you get used to that sound, but then when he takes away the voice from underpinning the piano and gives the piano a separate melody, you really notice it. And the contrapuntal writing can be quite complex – there are often several melodic lines coming all at once that he pulls deliciously together. I particularly love one of his Byron settings called Schlafloser,Augen Leuchte. It’s all about staring at a star that is unimaginably far away – he captures the empty nature of it superbly.
I have two absolute favourites, both of which I associate with my time at the Menuhin School. The first is the Octet, which always fills me with joy and stunned admiration at how a teenager could possibly write it. What is amazing is the seeming effortlessness of all the incredible techniques that he seams back together in the final movement. And then there are the nodding commentaries on Beethoven, the counterpoint on a massive, orchestral scale, and the incredible depth of the slow movement – although that movement is relatively short; for it to come out of the heart of a 16 year-old is astonishing. It’s also such fun to play. And then there’s the String Quartet Op. 13 in A minor, which I think was spurred on by a little youthful passion from Mendelssohn, who’d fallen in love with someone he’d spotted on a tour. It’s romantic, exhilarating and, along with the Octet, shows what a true master Mendelssohn was at writing for the strings.
David Hill Conductor and organist
The ItalianSymphony emerged two years after Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique but, unlike Berlioz who was thinking in another sound world altogether, Mendelssohn’s wonderful Italian sprung from his understanding of the classical symphony, presenting a totally fresh outlook on it. I never fail to be enthused by the work, from that fizzing A major start with the winds going mad and the strings with their soaring melody. It does state something quite different for music at the time, I think, particularly symphonically. It has a traditional symphonic structure, but Mendelssohn builds into it a newness, a freshness for which he was a complete master. The orchestration of it is so imaginative, too – there are those that criticise Mendelssohn for being predictable, but here he absolutely isn’t. The symphony has got so many technical challenges, too: the string writing is very fiddly – the filigree of it is really intricate, and the speed of the wind tonguing is so advanced for its time. For me, it’s such a winning piece all round.
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