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Mendelssohn with the ACO

Mendelssohn with the ACO

BIS  BIS-1984 SACD

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral


MENDELSSOHN BARTHOLDY, Felix (1809–47)
Concerto in D minor for Violin, Piano and Strings, MWV O 4 (1823)
Octet in E flat major, Op. 20/MWV R 20 (1825)

Polina Leschenko (piano)
Richard Tognetti (violin)
Australian Chamber Orchestra
Members of the Australian Chamber Orchestra (Richard Tognetti; Helena Rathbone; Satu Vänskä; Rebecca Chan; Christopher Moore; Nicole Divall; Timo-Veikko Valve; Julian Thompson)


Among the many child prodigies that have made their mark in the history of music, Felix Mendelssohn is, along with Mozart, possibly the most impressive. By the age of fifteen he had already composed 13 string symphonies and a number of concertos, and his first ‘proper’ symphony was not far away. He wasn’t just highly productive, however – his contemporaries already recognized the high quality of the works he produced: ‘Felix Mendelssohn composes with the greatest conceivable ease and with inextinguishable abundance of spirit, the most difficult pieces…’ wrote a German reviewer in 1822. Both pieces recorded here were composed with Mendelssohn’s friend and violin teacher, Eduard Ritz, in mind.

Felix himself premièred the Double Concerto in D minor with Ritz in May 1823 at one of the famous Sunday concerts at the Mendelssohn residence in Berlin, but except for a second outing later the same year, the work remained unperformed until 1957.

Here the piano part – in turn quick-silvery and lyrical – is defended by the Russian-born pianist Polina Leschenko, making her first appearance on BIS. She is partnered by Richard Tognetti, artistic director and leader of the Australian Chamber Orchestra.

Tognetti also leads seven of his colleagues from the ACO in the String Octet in E flat major, which Mendelssohn composed as a birthday present for Eduard Ritz. Written two years after the concerto, the octet only received its first public performance in 1836 but quickly became immensely popular. Although it belongs to the genre of chamber music, Mendelssohn himself underlined that it was to be played by all the instruments ‘in symphonic orchestral style’. He also explored the orchestral potential of the work at a performance of his Symphony No.1 in 1829, replacing the symphony’s minuet with an expanded arrangement of the Octet’s scherzo.

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Review by John Miller - April 17, 2013

An elegant but sober front disc cover here gives little indication of the delights within. My first encounter with Tognetti and his Australian Chamber Orchestra was with his Bach Keyboard Concertos, soloist Angela Hewitt - impressive and notable. Now the ACO and Tognetti present two seminal products of Mendelssohn's astonishing youth.The Double Concerto (violin and piano soloists with a string orchestra) is sometimes paired on disc with the later and universally known Violin Concerto in E minor. Here, however, it rests very comfortably with the Octet for Strings, another early work. This is not an entirely novel pairing, although not common, since the combination of an orchestral work with a chamber work is off-putting for some collectors. In the present case,however, I was certainly left feeling that the pairing has a musical unity which is most appealing.

Composed in 1823, which Mendelssohn was only 14 years old (!), the Double Concerto in D minor (MWV R O 4) was the second concerto written by the young tyro. Horst Scholz's illuminating booklet notes suggest that its antecedents were Bachian, whereas to my ears it is more Beethoven's influences that gave Mendelssohn his models for formal structure and thematic elements (Beethoven and Schubert still had a few years to live at the time of the Double Concerto's birth). Whatever the influences, the voice is firmly that of Mendelssohn's ego even at this stage in his career. Both organization and melodic content are firmly under the teenager composer's control, and he presents the music with inventiveness that has the listener constantly being surprised and delighted. And that, after all, is what the neuroscientists tell us is found most attractive by our brains.

Polina Leschenko (piano) and Richard Tognetti (violin) thankfully do not overcook the banquet on offer. Rather they are mindful of the concerto's Classical origins and context in the era of the pioneering early Romantics, so the performances of soloists and string orchestra are nicely scaled to suit, Tognetti also being discreet with his vibrato. Leschenko's charger being a Steinway D full concert grand, capable of drowning both violin and orchestra, is always performed with transparent textures, elegance of articulation. She also has a gently coy degree of reticence, which is quite endearing and doesn't limit her virtuosity or commitment in fortissimo tuttis. The orchestral strings are also fully committed; when they really "dig in", the sound of bow resin on strings is palpable, thanks to the BIS engineer's skillful balance.

The overall standard of playing in this concerto is captivating. Self-effacing soloists indulge in much dialogue-like interplay with each other, while the orchestra variously inspires them or offers a rich cushion for their more private musings. Tognetti and Leschenko's rich and warm of tonse and amorous expression in the lengthy D flat major romantic episode of the first movement development section is touching indeed, meltingly drawn out. Elsewhere the piece crackles with humor, cheeky asides and unexpectedly colourful textures from the string orchestra. A performance at this level really begs the question of why we do not hear the Double Concerto much more often. Another question might be "how did a 14 year old boy know so much about portraying love in musical terms?"

Mendelssohn's String Octet (MWV R 20) landed on the musical world in 1825. Going beyond Spohr's Double Quartet of 1823, Mendelssohn prefaced the score with the notice "This Octet must be played in the style of a symphony in all parts; the pianos and fortes must be brought out very precisely, clearly separate and more sharply than is usual in pieces of this genre". In this piece, as Scholz rightly points out in his notes, the ensemble is treated like a single entity. In the 2 years after the Concerto in D minor, the prodigy's level of musical maturity had leaped so far that the Octet has frequently been saluted as his greatest masterpiece, and by some commentators lauded as one of the finest masterpieces in all music.

Tognetti has assembled a group from the ranks of the ACO, playing on a number of precious old instruments (Guarneri, Guardigini, Stradivarius etc). These are players who work together on a daily basis, making music from ancient to modern, and they clearly have a fine level of self-listening, partner anticipation and overall trust which informs a fine ensemble. They clearly relish every single note in this marvelous performance of a magnificent work.

The "credo" of the Octet is firmly stated in its opening bars. Mendelssohn specifies Allegro moderato but qualifies it with "ma con fuoco (but with fire)". Listening to the upward lthrusted broken chords of E flat major (from quiet to loud) is an experience somewhat like observing a rocket launch. However, the fire in this piece is not an inflammation of anger but the expression of sheer passionate joy from a young man reveling in the development of his creative powerhouse.

The Octet's scherzo marks the first appearance of a new caste on this form as fixed by Beethoven. We hear for the first time Mendelssohn's fairy gossamer world, which is also seen in his incidental music to A Midsummer Night's Dream. "As lightly as possible" is his instruction for the Octet's scherzo, which is perhaps the most publically known single movement in chamber music. The obsessive elfin theme from this movement also makes an appearance in the Finale, a race-course from the bass upwards in fugato, where Mendelssohn shows what he can do with his book-learning. Both movements are brilliantly executed by the ACO ensemble, brimful as they are with swapped notes, traded secrets, and nods and winks, all executed with breath-taking accuracy and meaning. Of course, there are many other exceedingly fine readings of the Octet on record, including the Emerson Quartet's cleverly technical doubling-up version, with one quartet using its normal instruments, the "other" some borrowed old ones to aid picking out Mendelssohn's complex counterpoint. But the Tognetti ensemble has just captivated and enthralled me with this new version, and their ardent performance lives long in my memory.

Given the added transparent detail and realism of a 96/24 capture, back-lit by the lovely smooth acoustic of the Eugene Goossens Hall in Sydney, this disc should be a winner. Recommended without reservations.

Copyright © 2013 John Miller and HRAudio.net

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