One doesn’t often encounter all-Mendelssohn programs. If I were to find one in the Tanglewood season, I’d suspect it was a somewhat excessive gesture towards the more conservative members of the audience. On the other hand, from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Frans Brüggen, who has maintained a long-term relationship with the orchestra over the years, it meant a fresh look at three important works by a towering figure in nineteenth century music. Our view of Mendelssohn is still colored by the popular conception of him as a genial, highly privileged composer of tuneful works, who sadly died at the young age of thirty-eight. In truth, he was, both as a composer and a conductor, an extremely influential leader in the highly theoretical and factionalized world of Romantic music, the central figure in the more conservative, “classizing” group based in Leipzig. (A program note at the Bard Elgar Festival cited a students’ joke that the notoriously poorly ventilated Gewandhaus in Leipzig had no windows in order to preserve the very air that Mendelssohn had breathed.) This doctrinaire aspect of his work appeared in this program in the charming and evocative overture, “The Fair Melusine,” which he composed as a correction to an earlier treatment of the subject, Conradin Kreutzer’s, which he found lacking. His “Scottish” Symphony is an elaborate and lengthy evocation of memories of his tour two years previously to a country which had fascinated Romantics and their predecessors since the Ossian craze of the previous century. Combining evocative harmonies and orchestration with fragments of folk-tunes and invented melodies in a folk-like style, Mendelssohn created an elaborately worked composition of what is basically absolute music, in spite of its title and association with this incomparably picturesque and legendary country. Thanks to Frans Brüggen and the serious and intelligent violinist Viviane Hagner I gained fascinating new perceptions into this familiar music. Both Hagner and Brüggen seemed to share their own interests in Mendelssohn’s transitional passages, which in the Violin Concerto and the “Scottish” Symphony, are especially fully developed. I also had a sense that the 77-year-old Brüggen and the 30-year-old Hagner were learning from each other in this stimulating concert.
Another unique factor in this combination was the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, who were playing, somewhat to my surprise, entirely modern instruments, for Mr. Brüggen, whose work with period instruments I discussed in connection with his superb concerts with the period-instrument Orchestra of the 18th Century at Tanglewood this summer. (Period instruments would have been preferable in this music, I think, but perhaps Ms. Hagner or the Nippon Music Foundation, the owner of the 1717 Sasserno Stradivarius she plays, were a factor in the decision.) In fact all sections of the SCO are top-notch, but the woodwinds are particularly impressive. They were especially important in this Mendelssohn program, above all the young Spanish clarinettist Maximiliano Martín, who is clearly one of the great masters of his instrument. His sense of phrasing, often giving an improvisatory impression, his energetic rhythm, and his range of tone, from his bold high register to robust, occasionally biting chalumeau, is astonishing. It is interesting to note that the SCO were taking this program on tour to Spain, with the Mozart Clarinet Concerto substituted for the Violin Concerto. (The Scottish audiophile label, Linn Records, released a recording of the Mozart with Martín and the SCO in 2006.)
Brüggen began “The Fair Melusine” in a broad tempo, separating the lines in the running passage which evokes Melusine’s natural watery element, as well as each individual phrase, woodwinds predominating. I was immediately reminded of Furtwängler’s performances of the similar passage in Smetana’s “Die Moldau,” in which he is not content merely to project a tone-painting of flowing water, but shapes each phrase as a musical expression in its own right. This was clearly Mr. Brüggen’s intent, and it was not the only time my thoughts turned to Furtwängler. There was in general a tendency to take deliberate tempi in expositions and to press the tempo in recapitulations and codas, as Furtwängler characteristically did. This concentration on shorter phrases and the rests between them, especially in the inner voices was not what one usually hears in this music, and the blossoming second subject was not as prettified as it often is. Brüggen encouraged the SCO rather to explore the melody’s relation to the accompanying voices against which it is set. No clichés here.
Clichés were equally absent in the Violin Concerto. Ms. Hagner clearly had no interest in the work as an attractive showpiece; she has thought through the entire work, its construction, and the transitional passages, which allow the violin such rich opportunities for expression. In the direct, honest acoustics of the Queen’s Hall (for which I’ve developed a fondness already), she produced an attractively astringent sound from her instrument, avoiding any hint of luxury, which might distract the listener from Mendelssohn’s alert management of his thematic resources. The statement of the first subject of the first movement was deliberate, followed by a second subject which was exceptionally broad, but neither she nor Mr. Brüggen lost the sense of flow. Her flexibility in tempo is subtle, however. Her rallentando in the recapitulation cadence, just before the music returns to its basic tempo, was particularly elegant. Virtuosity, of which she is eminently capable, appeared only in the exuberant flourishes late in the three movements. Her approach to the cadenzas was probing rather than showy, more an opportunity for her great delicacy of tone and phrasing. One remarkable detail was the principle theme of the last movement, stated by solo violin accompanied by woodwinds. Instead of merely providing a bit of color in the background, the brilliant SCO woodwinds, Maximiliano Martín among them, actually played played together with Ms. Hagner in tight ensemble with great precision and vitality, as if it were chamber music. I can’t remember ever finding this familiar composition more rewarding.
Ms. Hagner responded to her well-deserved ovations—as well as Mr. Brüggen’s insistent expostulations—with an encore, which was from Nathan Milstein’s “Paganiniana.” [Correction, with thanks to Ms. Hagner. Ysaye’s beautiful Sonata no. 2 for solo violin in A minor is, however, most definitely worth hearing.] For Hagner the work was as much about intellectual challenges as physical ones, and it also showed how vivid the acoustics of the Queen’s Hall actually are.
Good news for Bostonians: Ms. Hagner will play Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto with the BSO under Charles Dutoit between February 6 and 12, 2008 in a program which will include Frank Martin’s Petite symphonie concertante, and Saint-Saëns’s “Organ” Symphony.
In the “Scottish” Symphony there were also revelations. With a chamber orchestra in this extremely transparent hall, one could appreciate Mendelssohn’s separation of the wind band from the strings as never before. This is generally masked by a full symphony orchestra playing in a reverberant hall. The slow introduction to the first movement, played by winds accompanied only by violas, later joined by the double-basses, producing a solemn, archaic sound (inspired by Holyrood Palace) and a precursor of the fourth movement of Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony, which similarly evokes a place and a building. The dark sonorities of the SCO’s strings were a great advantage as the movement unfolded through its quicker, dance-like, but still shadowy main section. The slow movement began and proceeded at an especially deliberate tempo, but for analytical, rather than sentimental reasons, and Mr. Brüggen’s careful handling of Mendelssohn’s transitional passages showed how the composer used them to vary and expand his thematic material, while reinforcing the structure of the movement. The isolation of the wind band creates the particular sound of the “Scottish” to a great extent, especially the clarinets, but Mr. Martín had a special opportunity in his solo statement of the folk-like primary theme of the scherzo, which he played with unrestrained exuberance and zest. Here he passed over the boundaries of absolute music to create a vivid characterization of the joyful rustic piper in the Scottish countryside, a figure familiar from Scott. The tune trails off into extended tones, which usually get lost in the general orchestral texture, but Martín bore in on them in a wild crescendo—a truly brilliant insight. The fourth movement, as fast as the wind, was reinforced by the strings’ pungent sonorities and the omnipresent winds, culminating in the concluding finale in the major.
As I said, it’s wrong to underestimate Mendelssohn, and Ms. Hagner and Mr. Brüggen were supremely successful in bringing these works, among his finest, to the outer edge of their limitations.