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Hyperion Records

CDA67795 - Mendelssohn: Violin Concertos
Photograph of Alina Ibragimova by Sussie Ahlburg
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Release date: October 2012
Total duration: 56 minutes 19 seconds


'This performance of the E minor Concerto is splendid in many ways. The OAE, with its period instruments, delivers textures of unusual transparency and Alina Ibragimova's playing combines verve, brilliance and imaginative intelligence' (Gramophone)

'Ibragimova's sensitive playing wins the day, with some superlative quiet moments and at all times a loyal adherence to the composer's markings and a sure sense of the music's phrasing and architecture' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Alina Ibragimova, with her wonderfully full, malleable tone, sinewy agility and deft expressiveness, proves a compelling exponent of this brilliant teenage score, combining it on this disc with an equally ear-catching performance of the later E minor Concerto … the speed of the finale might spell disaster in less able hands, but here it is simply thrilling' (The Daily Telegraph)

'Ibragimova's subtle changes of colour and prodigious range of articulation are things to wonder at' (The Guardian)

'This version of the E minor concerto is fresh and distinctive … the OAE's characterful playing is much in evidence … urged on by Vladimir Jurowski, supporting a feisty Alina Ibragimova, who has the appassionato marking of the first movement firmly in view but avoids ruthlessness and finds time to reflect … the 'other' violin concerto, the D minor, may not be as evergreen or as instantly memorable, but it is precocious and utterly assured … the catchy finale … leaves no doubt as to Ibragimova's virtuosity and the rapport between her and Jurowski and the OAE' (International Record Review)

Violin Concertos
Andante  [6'59]
Allegro  [8'38]
Andante  [8'50]
Allegro  [4'06]
Alina IbragimovaThe young violinist Alina Ibragimova is already established as an admired recording artist, standing alongside great artists of the past and present with her versions of Bach and Beethoven’s violin works. She appears on this latest release with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and Vladimir Jurowski (in his Hyperion premiere) in a programme which includes a classic of the concerto repertoire: Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor, Op 64. Ibragimova’s is a glittering, knife-edge performance, her playing a portrayal in itself of the music’s passion held in control through exquisite craft. The Violin Concerto in D minor—an unusual and welcome pairing—is an early work, written when the composer was only thirteen. As with Mendelssohn’s other juvenile works it is extraordinarily accomplished and exceedingly charming.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
On 22 July 1829, a twenty-year-old German composer departed London on a northern itinerary bound for Scotland. The English concert season had just concluded, and Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809–1847), having made a successful debut at the Philharmonic, left London musical life and society to pursue a novel pastime—a walking tour of Scotland during which he planned to ‘rake together’ folksongs. Accompanying him was his friend Karl Klingemann, a staff member of the Hanoverian legation. By the end of the month the two had reached Edinburgh, where one of Mendelssohn’s first efforts was to climb Arthur’s Seat. Taking in sweeping views of the Firth of Forth and the distant outlines of Ben Lomond, he wrote to his family in Berlin: ‘When God in heaven takes up panorama painting, you can expect something terrific.’ At Holyrood Palace, Mendelssohn contemplated the tragic reign of Mary, Queen of Scots, and in the adjacent, mouldering abbey, roofless and succumbing to the measured advance of ivy, he found the haunting melancholy that would tinge the opening of his Scottish Symphony. With Klingemann he then made an excursion south to the Borders region to visit Abbotsford. Filled with artefacts of Scottish history, this recently constructed residence was inhabited by the ‘great wizard of the North’, Sir Walter Scott, author of the epic poem The Lady of the Lake (1810) and the anonymously published Waverley novels (which began to appear in 1814), then all the rage on the Continent in translations. But the travellers enjoyed only a brief conversation with the celebrity, whose interests in German music were not deep. During their return trip to Edinburgh they paused to visit the thirteenth-century Cistercian abbey at Melrose, where Mendelssohn sketched some of the red sandstone gargoyles (whether or not he rendered one of the most fanciful, of a pig playing a bagpipe, is unknown).

Proceeding across the Highlands, the tourists reached Oban on the western coast. There, on 7 August, Mendelssohn sketched Dunollie Castle, the thirteenth-century stronghold of the MacDougalls, who had fought against Robert the Bruce. The ruins of their castle looked out from a promontory onto Mull and some of the surrounding Hebridean islands. Later that day Mendelssohn and Klingemann boarded a steamer to the fishing village of Tobermory, on the northern coast of Mull, and that evening the composer gathered his impressions in another letter to Berlin: ‘In order to make you understand how extraordinarily the Hebrides affected me, the following came into my mind there.’ The ‘following’ was a musical sketch, in piano score but with detailed orchestral cues, of the opening of the overture The Hebrides, also known as the Fingal’s Cave overture, in nearly its finished form. Here we find the familiar, rocking bass motif, sequentially transposed in a rising pattern, with sustained wind chords in the treble. Transposing visual memories of the day into sounding images, Mendelssohn indulged in synaesthesia, so that sight became sound in a finely nuanced display of romantic tone painting.

Significantly, his original musical inspiration for the overture was triggered by his visual impressions from Oban, not by his celebrated visit to Fingal’s Cave, on the tiny, windswept island of Staffa, six miles off the western coast of Mull. That event occurred the following day, 8 August. The seas were gentle enough for the tourists to land and clamber into the cave, but not calm enough for Mendelssohn to jot down further musical impressions, or to climb atop the island, as the poet Keats had in 1818. Succumbing to queasiness, Mendelssohn deferred to Klingemann, who sent this description to Berlin: ‘Staffa, with its strange basalt pillars and caverns, is in all the picture books. We were put out in boats and lifted by the hissing sea up the pillar stumps to the famous Fingal’s Cave. A greener roar of waves never rushed into a stranger cavern—its many pillars making it look like the inside of an immense organ, black and resounding, absolutely without purpose, and quite alone, the wide grey sea within and without.’

Not until December 1830 was Mendelssohn able to date a finished score of the overture, and he did so in Rome, well removed from nebulous Scottish seascapes. But, as was the case with most of his major works, the overture fell victim to the composer’s Revisionskrankheit, and he laboured over retouching the music for the next few years. With each reworking, Mendelssohn changed the title, first to Ouvertüre zur einsamen Insel (Overture to the Solitary Island), then to The Isles of Fingal for the first English performance in 1832, before finally releasing the work in print in 1835 as Fingals Höhle (Fingal’s Cave). An early performance in Leipzig was announced as Ossian in Fingals Höhle, linking the music and Staffa to one of the great literary forgeries of all time—the Ossianic poems passed off by James MacPherson in the 1760s as authentic fragments of ancient Celtic poetry.

Like all great music, Mendelssohn’s overture admits multiple interpretations. One can hear it in purely musical terms as an understated movement in modified sonata form, with three climaxes positioned near the end of the exposition, end of the development, and in the coda. In programmatic terms, one can interpret the overture as a musical depiction of Scottish seascapes and landscapes, or perhaps reflecting Sir Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake, partially set on Ellen’s Island, a ‘solitary’ island in Loch Katrine in the Trossachs. Or, shifting to Fingal’s Cave, one can imagine the distant military exploits of Fingal, as depicted in the Ossianic poems, an allusion that might well explain the military fanfares in the brass and winds that briefly come to the fore in the overture.

However we interpret the Hebrides Overture, it is among Mendelssohn’s most romantic evocations, and stands quite apart from much of his earlier work, including his student compositions completed in Berlin in the 1820s. For the most part, these efforts display stylistically conservative features linking them to the eighteenth century, and reflect the traditional instruction of Mendelssohn’s principal composition teacher, Carl Friedrich Zelter, who reinforced his young pupil’s inclination toward the music of J S and C P E Bach, Haydn and Mozart. The Violin Concerto in D minor (1822), composed when Mendelssohn was only thirteen, and dedicated to his friend and violin instructor, Eduard Rietz, is one such work. In three movements (fast–slow–fast), it is scored for string orchestra, and betrays two diverse influences. First is the French violin school of Viotti and his Parisian followers, among them Pierre Rode, Pierre Baillot (with whom the young Mendelssohn had studied in Paris in 1816), and Rodolphe Kreutzer. And second is the influence of C P E Bach and the North German school of string symphonists. The three movements suggest a clear historical progression, beginning with the first that, with its angular, interrupted melodic lines, recalls the mannered empfindsam (ultra-sensitive) style of C P E Bach. Quite in contrast is the opening of the slow movement, based on a theme at once serenely classical, and Mozartian in its poise. The finale, a brisk rondo in a popular style, bristles with solo figurations that reflect the virtuoso styles of Mendelssohn’s own time.

Some twenty years later, the composer returned to the genre to produce one of his most admired works, the Violin Concerto in E minor, Op 64, for his friend Ferdinand David, concertmaster of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Its formal perfection and exquisite craft conceal the remarkably slow gestation of the concerto, which required a full seven years, from 1838, when Mendelssohn began to ruminate about the elegiac opening theme that ‘gave him no peace’, to 1845, when David finally premiered the work in Leipzig shortly before its publication. Along the way, Mendelssohn set aside the project to contemplate writing a piano concerto in E minor for London, of which he drafted, sometime between 1842 and 1844, a first movement and sketched a second. Here we find the origins of the lyrical second theme in the first movement of Op 64. But Mendelssohn gave up the piano concerto to return to his original task. He dated his score of the violin concerto in September 1844, though almost immediately began to incorporate fine retouches. One, more substantial change resulted from his consultations with David: Mendelssohn lengthened the celebrated cadenza in the first movement, which, unusually, appears at the end of the development instead of near the end of the recapitulation, its traditional position.

The placement of the cadenza was one novelty that influenced later composers (notably Sibelius in his violin concerto of 1903). Another was the remarkable opening of Mendelssohn’s concerto, which inverts the traditional tutti–solo arrangement, so that at the outset the soloist introduces the pensive theme, set high above a rustling orchestral accompaniment, that eventually builds and spills over into the delayed orchestral tutti. This device spawned many imitations, and arguably influenced some composers usually not at all associated with Mendelssohn’s refined romanticism (for example Rachmaninov and Bartók, in their third piano concertos).

Like Mendelssohn’s two completed piano concertos, Opp 25 and 40, Op 64 is in three movements connected by two transitions, a design that traces its lineage from Carl Maria von Weber’s Konzertstück for piano and orchestra of 1821, which features four compact, connected movements. The passionate, agitated quality of Mendelssohn’s first movement gives way to a warmly lyrical, Lied-ohne-Worte-like slow movement in C major. Only its contrasting middle section, which turns to A minor, recalls in its quivering tremolos something of the character of the first movement. The brisk E major finale, announced by celebratory wind fanfares, offers a capricious scherzo that unfolds as a rondo on two alternating themes—the first, a fleet-footed, delicate figure in the solo violin, and the second, a march-like subject that impresses perhaps as a nimble cousin of the contemporaneous Wedding March in the Midsummer Night’s Dream incidental music. Mendelssohn’s irrepressible finale harnesses an effervescent virtuosity to a clear, translucent design at once satisfying in its unexpected excursions and formal balance.

R Larry Todd © 2012

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