FELIX MENDELSSOHN-BARTHOLDY (1809 – 1847) Violin Concerto in E minor, Op 64 (1844)

FELIX MENDELSSOHN-BARTHOLDY (1809 – 1847}

Violin Concerto in E minor, Op 64 (1844}

  1. Allegro molto appassionato
  2. Andante
  3. Allegretto non troppo – Allegro mo/to vivace

One of the greatest prodigies in composing history, Mendelssohn at the age of only 16 had penned his Op 20 Octet for strings, one of the very greatest chamber works in the entire canon, and followed this up with Op 21, the truly magical Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture, aged 17. It has always been fashionable to say that, following this precocity, Mendelssohn never quite made the most of his potential, but the masterworks written within a few years of his early death aged 38, including the wonderful Italian Symphony {1842) and Violin Concerto (1844), completely belie this.

Visits to Scotland and to Italy  whilst on his European Grand Tour had produced memorably characteristic works, but it was his friendship with the violinist Ferdinand David which inspired his finest concerto, one of the greatest and best-loved of all violin concertos, which combines in its three movements the elegant virility  of the Italian Symphony, the tenderness of many of his Songs Without Words and the elfin delicacy of the Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture. 

As a teenager Mendelssohn had written a violin concerto in D minor which is now seldom heard, but when, as Conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (still today one of the world’s leading orchestras), he appointed David Konzertmeister (Leader) in 1838 he was so impressed that he promised the violinist a concerto. Since he did not have practical experience as a violinist himself he sought David’s advice many times during the composition of the work which, despite the finished product’s apparently effortless flow and elegance, actually took him some six years; in promising David the concerto he wrote ‘I have one in E minor running through my head….and the beginning does not leave me in peace.’ Eventually the work was premiered by David on 13 March 1845 in the Gewandhaus, although it was conducted not by the composer but by the Danish composer I conductor Niels Gade, and Mendelssohn continued tweaking it almost until the moment the first rehearsal began. Far from being the product of a faded genius who had forgotten how to be original, the E minor reaches into the heart of the instrument, putting it in the same class as the concerto of Beethoven and subsequently those of Max Bruch, Tchaikovsky and Brahms amongst 19th century works for the instrument. No self-respecting soloist can afford to be without it in his or her repertoire, and it remains one of the most-recorded concertos of all.

It also embodies what at the time was a unique structure. 19th century accepted concerto form involved a substantial orchestral introduction to the first movement, usually exposing the themes which the solo part subsequently develops, but in the Mendelssohn the opening theme is announced immediately by the soloist following only a moment of restless atmosphere-setting. The positioning of the cadenza is also unique for its time; this was usually an opportunity for the soloist to extemporise on the themes of the first movement just before the final coda, but here the cadenza arrives midway through the movement at the end of the development and leads into the recap. It is written out completely by the composer and no alternative has ever  successfully  been  substituted;  Tchaikovsky’s  violin  concerto  would  use this model later in the century, while the concertos of Beethoven and Brahms would place the cadenza later in the movement and offer more freedom to the soloist. Later, at the first movement’s conclusion, Mendelssohn asks the bassoon to hold a long B, which leads seamlessly into the Andante. This too is ground-breaking, and possibly shows Mendelssohn mischievously putting paid to audiences’ propensity to applaud between movements (a habit which has returned more recently!). Finally, there is a brief Allegretto which offers a bridge between the second and third movements; once again this retains the rapt continuity of the work for the listener.

  1. The themes of the sonata-form first  movement  will  no  doubt  be  familiar, from the burnished passion  of the  soloist’s  opening  E-string melody, through the beautiful interplay between solo and woodwind within the second subject and the quicksilver passagework of the development and the cadenza, to the scintillating coda. The Andante’ s outer sections sing  with  heartfelt  lyricism while the soloist’s shimmering  double-stops in the central section take us into more uneasy mood. Finally, following the Allegretto bridge, the finale dances with the same light-footed brilliance as Mendelssohn had found  in  A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the E major key exploiting  the  brightest resonances within the  solo  instrument  and the  orchestral  counter-melody  to the soloist’s effervescence  a matter of sheer joy.

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