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The Hunt For Lost Treasures: Part II

New York
Edmond J. Saffra Hall, The Museum of Jewish Heritage
01/28/2009 -  
Felix Mendelssohn: Presto agitato for piano in B Minor – Trio for Violin, Viola and Piano in C Minor – Sonata for Violin and Piano in D Minor – 12 Fugues for String Quartet – Sonata for Piano in F Minor – Song Without Words for Piano in D Major – Songs: O könnt' ich zu Dir fliegen – Erwartung: Bist auf ewig Du gegangen – So schlaf' in Ruh – Wie kann ich froh und lustig sein? – Abendlied: Wenn ich auf dem Lager liege – Wasserfahrt: Ich stand gelehnet an den Mast
All are world premieres

Stephen Somary (Artistic Director), Stephen Vann (Artistic Producer), Orion Weiss, Anna Polonsky (Pianists), Abigail Nims (Mezzo-soprano), Kevin Deas (Bass), The Shanghai Quartet: Yi-Wen Jiang, Weigang Li (Violins), Honggang Li (Viola), Nicholas Tzavaras (Cello)

Felix Mendelssohn (Courtesy of The Mendelssohn Project)

The most astonishing numbers in this concert weren’t musical: they were digital. Stephen Somary, Artistic Director of the Mendelssohn Project, told the audience in this beautiful theatre that no less than 270 works of the prolific composer have never ever been performed, and that many of the scores are buried in libraries and attics on five continents.

True, this is partially because Mendelssohn never found publishing a necessity, and never even bothered to autograph his scores. (He didn’t even want his “Italian” symphony published). But according to Mr. Somary, who has traveled the world looking for these missing scores, it is because Wagner’s anti-Semitism was such an influential force that it precluded Mendelssohn being in great demand right down to the Second World War.

I am not totally convinced by this. Wagner had a grudging admiration for Mendelssohn, and anyhow, his polemics were usually ignored. Certainly Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto was performed throughout the 19th Century. The music to Midsummer Night’s Dream was so popular that the frustrated Adolf Hitler commissioned Carl Orff to compose music for the play, so Mendelssohn wouldn’t be heard. And, like Handel, Mendelssohn was virtually a citizen of Great Britain, loved by royals and commoners alike throughout the Victorian Era.

Coincidentally, this concert was the second of the week where German musical treasures have been displayed. Sunday, Leon Botstein presented unknown works of East Germany in one of the most exciting concerts of January. The Mendelssohn had a certain sameness to it, but this hardly precluded a few radiant jewels to be shown.

The first half of the program varied. A song for baritone was rather pedestrian. But a unison duet sung in with gentleness and fine taste by Abigail Nims and Kevin Deas was a good showpiece, as were three other duets.
Anna Polonsky and Orion Weiss shared the piano pieces. Ms. Polonsky began with a typical Mendelssohn scherzo and accompanied the singers. Mr. Weiss played an elegant piano sonata—written when the composer was 12!—that had an adagio movement which could have descended directly from Bach.
Closing the half was a trio for violin, viola and piano whose main theme jumped right out of the Grosse Fuge. (Not that Mendelssohn ever plagiarized from Beethoven: he was far too well-off to steal from anybody else.)

The second half of the program had an excitement of performance more than inspiration, with the very noble-sounding Shanghai Quartet presenting a baker’s dozen Mendelssohn fugues. The 12 Fugues, written when he was 14, were schoolbook exercises where the composer tried to follow the rules of his beloved Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach, though, broke all the mathematical rules (or his mathematics ventured into quantum equations), where Mendelssohn kept to a rigid formula. The finale to a quartet, written two years later, was more complex but again showed brilliant workmanship more than great inspiration.

Preceding that, though was an electrifying one-movement Violin Sonata with a ravishing slow introduction, and a fiercely fast finale, played by Weigang Li and pianist Orion Weiss. This would make a marvelous opening work for any daring violinist.

The paradox of Mendelssohn, though, is that, unlike Mozart, his youthful works sound very much like his later works. It’s as if the well-off composer never dared, never challenged himself, and stayed with his comfort level from early teens to his untimely death. We can become excited thinking of where Schubert and Mozart and Beethoven might have ventured had they lived longer. But Mendelssohn? Chances are he would have enjoyed his fame, his life, and his music without much reason to change.

Hearing all 13 world premieres was certainly a treat, and Mr. Somary must be congratulated for his international detective work. The evening, like the music, was comfortable, pleasant, meticulously presented and offering simple satisfaction.

Harry Rolnick



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