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Fiona on Felix ‘no fifths’ Mendelssohn

2009 sees four towering anniversaries in the realms of classical music: Handel (died 1759), Haydn (died 1809), Purcell (born 1659) and Mendelssohn (born 1809).  Whilst the year is largely dominated by the two superstars - Haydn and Handel -with air waves and opera houses across Europe resounding to their every last semi quaver, Mendelssohn, our exquisite, gentle Romantic is almost overlooked. Over the years, bad press has swathed the child prodigy (dead at 38) in a miasma of ghostly respectability. Critics have sucked the marrow from his music and declared Mendelssohn, for all his exquisite light-fingered melodies, the lightweight of the Romantic movement.  He has been, rather cruelly, left out in the cold, writing (one imagines) contrapuntal velvet-slippered odes to the moon. 

On the weekend of the 9th May, BBC Radio 3 hauled him from his musical oubliette.  I was invited along to review their live broadcast from Birmingham, the city where in 1846 his great oratorio Elijah (which the Times proclaimed as ‘one of the most extraordinary achievements of human intelligence’) was premiered.

On the train winding North I wondered what the hell I could write about Mendelssohn. Yes of course, at an age when I thought Agnus Dei was the church cleaner, Mendelssohn could spot an elusive contrapuntal error in the depths of a Brandenburg concerto.  Yes Goethe was his mentor and he hung out with Hegel, Humboldt and Heine, but that still doesn’t make him that interesting.  He didn’t binge eat like Handel, he didn’t hallucinate fairies like Britten, he didn’t collect life size monopoly-board model houses like Satie and periodically advertise them for rent. He wasn’t a death-obsessed numeromaniac like Bruckner, he didn’t believe, like Scriabin, that if his music was played in the Himalayas it would bring about the Armageddon. 

You have to be amazingly, carpet-lickingly insane to be considered great in the Classical world. The closest Mendelssohn gets to being blessed with mystical madness is through Schumann.  Schumann believed that Mendelssohn sent him celestial music from beyond the grave.  Yes, that’s Mendelssohn: a bit part in someone else’s delirium.  He is as famous now for being the victim of Wagner’s scurrilous rant against Jews in the 1850 pamphlet ‘Judaism and Music’ as he is for his work.

He may not have been bonkers but he did have quality. The thing about Mendelssohn is he gets under the skin so quickly, you don’t even notice.  As I bedded down to listen to the performance, I wrote a tentative and sarcastic title for my review on my notepad. I wasn't expecting much, I wasn’t sure this music had anything to say. Could it match the dark, poisoned fruits of the Romantics at their most tragic? I doubted it and underlined my title. Then something began to happen. The conductor’s hand fell and out came the strobed timbre of the Ruy Blas overture.  And what a launching pad it was for the giddy melody to bounce off, all exquisitely guided under the sinewed arm and easy grin of conductor, Nicholas Kraemer.

Pianist, Andrew  Zollinsky’s Capriccioso was as light fingered as the Thomas Crown Affair.  The Rondo Capriccioso, incidentally, was a piece Mendelssohn wrote at the age of 15, the same age as soprano and chorister of the year, Alice Halstead, whom I stumbled upon earlier in the day at the rehearsal singing O For the Wings of a Dove before she dashed to double history and back for the evening’s concert.  

Next came the organ recital.  I was actually looking forward to that part.  Organs get you on a visceral, intestinal level.  They don’t evoke petty emotions like sadness or happiness.  Rather the sound floods your nostrils and drills through the soles of your feet.  It takes your heart and rattles it like a cheap piñata.  

So enter the organist: Thomas Trotter, seventh Birmingham city organist.  He harnessed the power of 6000 pipes and countless stops in a blistering rendition of W Best’s ‘War March of the Priests’ and returned for the 3rd movement from the Organ Sonata No 1 in F minor.  He was dwarfed by the enormous Mander organ – once the largest in Europe and recently restored to the tune (ho ho) of over a million quid.  It loomed 32 ft above him, its pipes like the columns of a sultan’s palace. 


I watched Trotter sitting in the tiny console and remembered in disbelief his self-deprecating remark he once made in an interview, that organists tend to be tin-eared compared to pianists. As if there was nothing more to organ-playing than stops and spanners. Yet there he was, his feet treading as lightly as a dancer (and in a dancer’s thin-soled shoes) over the huge, curved pedals.  He was playing the very same organ Mendelssohn had back in 1846 and it sounded brilliant.  My notebook had fallen to the floor by the time the last deafening chord broke over my head.   

At this point I chewed my pen and contemplated a fag break. The String Symphony in C major was next, written by a twelve year old Mendelssohn. Bound to be dull.   It wasn’t, it was scary.  It was a crotchet bag of interwoven melodies.  It was counterpoint of Zen quality.  Most conductors tend to avoid the String Symphony in C Major as being all too ornately over-styled but Kraemer, himself a Baroque master of the frothy fancy stuff, paid light-hearted homage to the boyish melodising.  The BBC Philharmonic’s sensitive phrasing of the alluring melody, steered us away from the ‘complex artificiality’ that Wagner so derided him for.   

And then finally there was the bow of Tai Murray, playing the Violin Concerto in E Minor.  I knew this one via Heifetz.  I chewed my pen and waited.  Murray was built like a tennis player, all engines gleaming, the sleek strength in her long toned arms and streamlined shoulders.  During the quiet passages she stood motionless, her bow held in front of her.  Then she seized the fiendishly difficult bits as sharp and angry as a cornered cat.  Brutal, molten, dancing, piercing, slicing, shafting, a dizzy fulcrum that whirled round and round faster than a Glaswegian cab metre.  Critics tend to deride this concerto.  But there was no sugar, no artificial sweetener, there were no sick bags needed.  It was athletic and aggressive.  Spine-tingling in fact. 
I picked up my jaw and notebook off the floor.  I hadn’t written a single word the entire concert.  The title I had tentatively cooked up earlier hung in empty space at the top: ‘O for the Wings of a Doze.’  I very carefully crossed it out.  

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