Tuesday, 30 January 2024

CHF 150 | 110 | 50 | 30.-

F. Mendelssohn
Concerto pour violon n° 2 en mi-mineur op. 64

J. Brahms
Sérénade n° 1 en ré majeur op. 11

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Concert presentation

Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E minor op.64
Just like rock music, the violin has its hits. If this concerto attracted the very greatest soloists, this was certainly in the first instance for its unparalleled lyricism. But before we discuss the work, a little history: in 1838, while music director at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, Mendelssohn wrote to his childhood friend Ferdinand David, an acclaimed violinist: ‘I would like to offer you a violin concerto for next winter. I have one in E minor in my head, and its opening theme haunts me constantly.’ This obsession would precoccupy the work’s author for six years, so quick to put pen to paper as he usually was – a sign of the importance the work had taken on in his eyes. This would, moreover, be his final orchestral work, before his premature death in 1847. In a strange portent, the composer subjected the most demanding passages to the judgement of his soloist, as if to ensure that this gesture of support would carve his notes in marble, and offer the composer protection in advance from the accusation of allying German poise to the romanticism of a lightweight heart. Or, for that matter, intermingling the Aryan tradition with Jewish songs? For indeed, although Mendelssohn could never have foreseen the racist campaign Wagner led against him, which would culminate in Goebbels banning his music, Judaism would prove to play a major role in Mendelssohn’s destiny. Converted to Protestantism by his father Abraham, who was alarmed at the prevailing trend of anti-Semitism (although the world did not yet exist), the student refused to trade his patronym for ‘Bartholdy’, although he did indeed have the latter inscribed on his calling card, to assuage his family’s concerns.

After all, to return to our concerto, it has often been noted that the soloist enters the fray in the second bar, in lieu of the traditional orchestral exposition. Beyond the fact of Mozart and Beethoven having already paved the way for this unconventional approach, let us rather see in this masterly opening Mendelsohn’s atavistic, instinctive homage to the name that was almost taken from him, or indeed to the most stirring of Slavonic dances – all this at a time when pogroms against the Ashkenazi Jews were on the rise. The whole of the first movement oscillates between madcap bursts of energy which increase in intensity as the music progresses, and heartfelt, yet almost Mozartian sobs – which therefore have a fundamentally dreamlike optimistic flavour. Not to mention the virtuosic technical pauses, worthy of Tartini’s Devil’s Trill, and in a sense even of Bach’s Chaconne. The discreet, plangent tone of the bassoon draws out from the dazzling coda a thread that leads us to the slow movement…

A cantilena is ‘a lyric poem with gentle harmonies’: what better description could there be for the song of the violin in the Andante? Coupled with an additional waft of mist as gracious as the waltzes of Strauss (the Austrian), reduced by Mendelssohn to the status of simple decoration, and an orchestral richness from which Wagner would later take unashamed inspiration. Here we can see the composer’s gift for the plastic arts; Mendelssohn paints in music a hundred different landscapes, be they craggy or pastoral, with infinite nuances.

The finale peels off the initial theme in order to reinvent it and reconstruct it, as if life had passed through fervour and reason. But the scherzo still establishes itself without reticence, in the fashion so characteristic of Mendelssohn: spirited, jovial, irresistible. Full of vigour – for a man soon to die at the age of 38.

Brahms: Serenade no.1 in D major op.11
An artist can have all the talent in the world, but he also needs confidence. Brahms was only 24 when he composed this Serenade, finding himself working for a provincial court, with Prince Leopold III of Lippe. His engagement gave him the space to compose: he was hired for only three months of the year, in real time, to teach the princess piano, give a few concerts and conduct the choir. The remainder of the time – from 1857 – he spent working on this piece, among others, initially structured in four movements, and intended for an ensemble of nine instruments in an 18th-century style. But Brahms professed himself dissatisfied with this initial burst of composition – now lost, and judged by the man himself as ‘misconceived’. It was at this stage, on the verge of abandoning the piece, that his friends Joseph Joachim and Clara Schumann persuaded him to convert his score… into a symphony – almost as if they had sensed that their protegé had grand ambitions, without having the courage of his convictions. The final work, with two additional sections, was premiered in 1860 and was Brahms’s first orchestral work. It resembles not so much a ‘song traditionally performed at night beneath the window of a beloved woman’ (the definition of a ‘serenade’) as a symphony in disguise. Following various testimonies, historians have attributed a range of influences to the work. ‘How he loved the great masters and how well he played Haydn and Mozart!’ was the view of one cellist at the time in the service of the same court. But far from offering a pastiche of a particular galant style, Brahms took inspiration from Mozart for the increased number of movements and for the notion of a hybrid composition, on the cusp of a number of different forms and genres. Otherwise, a typically Brahmsian sound takes shape: at once fiery, romantic and graceful, with echoes of the forests. The premiere was a triumph, with the work hailed as an avant-garde masterpiece. Yet it would be another 20 years before Brahms, inhibited by the long shadow cast by Beethoven, would publish his first genuine symphony. Art is a difficult – and slow – process.

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