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Glittering Beauty: Mendelssohn, Piano, Violin Concerti

The MHS Review 410, VOL. 12, NO.14• 1988

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David M. Greene


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Often I've reminded you, how, in the name of truth., Miss Twilly taught us in Music Appreciation that Dvorak wrote five symphonies. In the advanced section, you will recall, we learned that Felix Mendelssohn also turned out five, along with two piano concerti and the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. And so we matured, and grew old secure in such knowledge, for Miss Twilly stood for Truth (but not for any nonsense in class!).

Then along came the revisionist scholars, followed closely by the revisionist record manufacturers, and we found ourselves having to deal with the news that Dvorak wrote nine symphonies, that Mendelssohn wrote twice that many, along with some extra piano concerti and one such violin concerto, and that Miss Twilly was ig­norant or a liar and should have been booted out of the profession.

One would like to think that Miss Twil­ly knew this stuff all along, and was mere­ly making sure we had Good Taste. Like so many in her era, she differentiated bet­ween Masterpieces and what she deemed inferior goods. The first four Dvofaks were the work of an upstart who had not yet reached 35. The Mendelssohn pieces were beneath notice, for their composer had scarcely attained puberty or probity.

Today, young Felix Mendelssohn would have been doing Little League, and dance lessons and the Young People's Philhar­monic and art camp. His parents were up­wardly mobile. His hunchbacked grand­father had broken out of the Dessau ghet­to, added "Mendelssohn" (i.e. Mendel's son) to his given name of Moses, and, by sheer force of intellect, had established himself as one of the great thinkers of the day; true to his name, he led his people into mainline German society. Felix's father, Abraham, who saw himself as a hyphen between his own father and his talented son, was a successful banker whose home became the focus of Berlin's artists and in­tellectuals. The Sunday musicales there were the talk of the town, and their stars were not infrequently Felix and his sister Franny.

Abraham Mendelssohn, like today's yuppies, not only wanted the best that money could buy for his offspring, he wanted them to shine. Hence they were rousted out of bed on weekdays at 5 A.M. to pass through the hands of a battery of tutors. They were tutored in antique and modern languages, history, politics, geography, drawing, and music, among other things. They swam and rode and ice skated. They amused themselves putting on plays in their spare time, if any. Felix was not on­ly good in all these things, he was also handsome, charismatic, and sweet-natured.

His music tutor was Friedrich Zelter, musically conservative, an admirer of the half-forgotten Sebastian Bach's music, and an intimate of Goethe. When Felix was 12 years old, Zelter wrote Goethe that, in­credibly, this Jewish kid might actually turn into an artist.

The kid did indeed become an artist (a lot sooner than Zelter could have guessed); he also became a favorite of the old poet. By the time he was 12 he was turning out well-crafted symphonies---13 in toto, within a couple of years. And all the time he was hobnobbing with everybody who was anybody in the adult world. You could loathe a child like that, except that Felix was apparently unloathable--though it is said that half a loath is better than none.

The two concerti on this record date from his 14th year, and would have done credit to many a musician twice his age. The orchestration, like that of the early symphonies, is for strings only. Their for­mal classicism shows Zelter's fingerprints, but they have a typically Mendelssohnian glitter, which especially suits Katsaris' play­ing. One should not expect any great depth of feeling--that was rarely Felix's style­--but grace and beauty abound.

The violin piece had its first modern hearing in 1952 at the hands of Yehudi Menuhin, who was also the first to record it. I am unable to find out just when the piano concerto showed up, though the notes to Rena Kyriakou 's record of it made about 20 years ago call it "recently discovered." (Hers seems also to have been a first recording.)

Info on inside cover

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