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This beautiful recording features features violinist Joseph Swensen, who is also principal conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, in some of Mendelssohn's best loved music.
Originally released in 2004, Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto has been re-issued as part of Linn's ECHO series which offers a second chance to enjoy the best of the label's award-winning recordings.
Born in Hamburg, 3 February 1809, Felix was the second child of Abraham and Lea Mendelssohn. Abraham was a successful banker in a firm he founded with his brother in Berlin, a city he and his family (including the children Fanny [born 1805], Felix and another daughter, Rebecka [born 1811]) returned to in July 1811. A fourth child, Paul, was born in 1812. The family were well-off, and the children well-educated. Felix and his sister Fanny received their initial musical education from their mother Lea and later, others were called in to help polish the two prodigies. During a visit to Paris in 1816-7 the children received piano lessons from Marie Bigot, a player who was admired by both Haydn and Beethoven. Later musical lessons came from Ludwig Berger and then, at the Berlin Singakademie, with Carl Friedrich Zelter. Zelter was himself schooled and taught using instruction from Kirnberger’s Kunst des reinen Satzes in der Musik, written to disseminate the pedagogical method of J.S. Bach. Zelter probably commenced teaching the young Felix composition in mid-1819; his first datable composition was performed on 11 December 1819.
Family connections allowed much opportunity for the young Felix to meet and perform in front of leading European musicians including, at various times, Hummel, Spohr, Schelbe, Moscheles, Cherubini, Kreutzer and Rossini.
When still in his mid-teens, Felix was given a copy of J.S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion, a work which he revived in a celebrated performance at the Berlin Singakademie in March 1829, following years of preparation. By this time Felix was known as a gifted composer whose works were regularly being performed—his Midsummer Night’s Dream was premiered in early 1827 at a concert which also included the composer playing one of the solo parts in his Double Piano Concerto in A-flat Major. The earliest of his Lieder ohne Worte (Songs Without Words) was written, as a birthday present for his sister Fanny, in 1828.
1829 also saw Felix embark on what can best be described as a Grand Tour. Shortly after the performances of the St Matthew Passion, Felix left for Hamburg and, following a difficult crossing of the English Channel, arrived in London on 21 April. Initially remaining in London, often performing at private gatherings, Felix left London in late July to visit Scotland for a walking tour. It was at an assembly of bagpipe musicians at Holyrood Palace, Edinburgh, that the inspiration for the opening of the Scottish Symphony No 3 came to him, and within two weeks he had the genesis of his Hebrides Overture, which came to him while looking out at the Hebrides. A letter written to his family, dated 7 August 1829, includes the opening bars of the first theme in score. Although intimately connected with the work, it was not until the following day that Felix visited Fingal’s Cave on the island of Staffa.
Despite being capable of writing quickly when it was required of him, Felix was at heart a constant reviser of his own works. The first draft of the ‘Hebrides Overture’ was completed in Rome during a visit in the winter of 1830-1, but the work was not completed and performed until mid-1832. In the case of the ‘Scottish’ Symphony, work was even slower with the piece not being completed and performed until 1842.
Part of the delay with the latter piece can be directly attributed to his other activities. From 1833, still in his early twenties, Mendelssohn held a series of musical posts, including those of Music Director in Düsseldorf and, from 1835, Musical Director in Leipzig, where his duties included conducting the Gewandhaus Orchestra. In 1838 he directed a series of four ‘historical concerts’, featuring performances of music composed up to 100 years earlier.
A similar series in 1841 featured five concerts, the first of which featured the music of J.S. Bach and Handel, and the last featuring music by contemporary composers. Although not the first to do so, Felix conducted with a baton, and it is here that the orchestral concert programme of today has its earliest foundations.
Felix’s later life saw an increased workload with his time divided between a newly created, although undefined, post in Berlin, and his position in Leipzig. He was also involved in the creation of the Music Conservatory in Leipzig, heading a staff which included Robert Schumann, Ignaz Moscheles, Ferdinand David, Moritz Hauptmann and later Niels Gade. As his workload increased, so did his frustration at the lack of time available to pursue his favourite activity, composition. The Scottish Symphony was finished in January 1842 and received its premiere on 3 March of that year. However, the true compositional masterpiece of Felix’s later years is his Violin Concerto in E minor, Op 64, written for Ferdinand David, and premiered in Leipzig (conducted by Niels Gade) on 13 March 1845.
Felix never managed to free himself of other commitments; a commission from the London Handel Society to edit Israel in Egypt resulted in the first ‘modern published edition’ with Felix clearly differentiating between Handel’s written marks and his own suggestions. The following year his edition of Bach’s organ works used similar practices.
The depression, for that is what a modern physician may well call it, in his later years never escaped Felix. Whereas Mozart suffered poverty, Beethoven deafness and Schumann madness, Felix suffered as a result of his great success, something familiar to the people of the twenty-first century. He died, mere months after his beloved sister Fanny, following a stroke on 29 October 1847, aged only thirty-eight.
David Martin © 2002