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Mendelssohn's big birthday party

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Jessica Duchen Jessica Duchen | 14:35 UK time, Tuesday, 3 February 2009

mendelssohn_va_200.jpgIt's Anniversary Day, 3 February - the occasion to offer prime Felixcitations and declare Mendelssohn's big birthday party officially open.

First of all, if you missed the broadcast on 1 February, make sure you tune in to Listen Again during the course of this week to hear the celebration EBU bonanza day of Mendelssohn, Mendelssohn and more Mendelssohn. A

mong the highlights are the delectable Nikolaj Znaider playing the Violin Concerto, an organ recital from St Thomas's Church, Leipzig by Ullrich Bohme, pure joy from soprano Ailish Tynan and pianist Llyr Williams at the Wigmore Hall and rare chamber music from Mendelssohn's own home in Leipzig. For the rest of this week, too, you can hear the BBC National Orchestra of Wales playing Mendelssohn symphonies every afternoon on BBC Radio 3.

If you're within shooting distance of London's snazzy new concert hall, Kings Place - and if you're not snowed in - it's the scene of an extended exploration this week of Mendelssohn's lesser-known chamber music and songs, put together by Eugene Asti, American-born pianist and accompanist. 'Mendelssohn Rediscovered: Unknown Songs' runs from 4 to 8 February and places Mendelssohn in context with such contemporary luminaries as Gounod, Berlioz and Clara Schumann, as well as Mendelssohn's sister Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel; and those he influenced, not least Brahms, Liszt and Wagner (yes, Wagner). Performers include sopranos Katherine Broderick, Sophie Daneman, Susan Gritton, Geraldine McGreevy and Hannah Morrison, mezzo Anna Grevelius, tenor Finnur Bjarnason, baritones Stephen Loges and James Rutherford and cellist Richard Lester - a veritable feast of fresh, inventive musical treats. I am reaching for the snow shovel as I write, and hope that the local train company will do likewise.

But here in the Blogosphere, snow is never a problem: Mendelssohn Day on 3 February is an excuse to crack open a bottle of VirtualVintageChampers in the Cyberposhplace usually reserved for the annual Winter Solstice JDCMB Ginger Stripe Music Awards (visit jessicamusic.blogspot.com for this). Because of the credit crunch, and because Mendelssohn is such a special and charming fellow, they have agreed to let us in free, on condition that Felix lets us see the trans-dimensional section of the guest list first. So here are a few A-list ghost celebrities who are invited to the bash.

Robert and Clara Schumann: Felix's intimate friends. It was thanks to Schumann, who unearthed the piece, that Mendelssohn ended up conducting the world premiere of Schubert's Ninth Symphony; and meanwhile he got on terrifically well with Clara. 'One nice word from Mendelssohn makes her glow for hours,' Schumann grumbled. (Unfortunately they weren't entirely above making the occasional anti-Semitic aside behind his back.) The Schumanns were profoundly shocked by Mendelssohn's untimely death; it had a distinctly destabilising effect on Schumann's already seriously disturbed psyche; and when their last son was born, while Schumann was in the mental hospital at Endenich, Clara named him Felix.

J S Bach: a fellow Leipzig resident, if somewhat earlier, Bach has a retrospective thank-you to offer Mendelssohn, who found and resuscitated his St Matthew Passion. Few composers of this era had such an ideal grasp of Bachian counterpoint as Mendelssohn - try his own stunning Preludes and Fugues for piano solo. Contrpuntal lines shine equally effortlessly out of his chamber music and the Violin Concerto (try that passage where the main theme suddenly becomes an accompaniment to a new and more lyrical melody), a whopping great chorale theme resounds from the finale of the C minor Piano Trio, and frankly, without Bach, we would never have had Elijah.

Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel: If you haven't encountered Fanny Mendelssohn's music before, do try to hear some. It's extremely good - I would venture to say better than Clara Schumann 's (though in comparing them I'd be breaking my own principles of not lumping them together merely because they were both women in a man's world...). I recommend Fanny's The Year, a programmatic cycle for piano solo, evoking in a series of musical poems 12 months spent travelling in Italy. It's recently been recorded by the superb Lauma Skride (sister of violinist Baibe).

Franz Liszt: Not Mendelssohn's best friend, perhaps, but might the Hungarian virtuoso composer-pianist have owed Mendelssohn more than a little debt regarding programmatic music? With Liszt and his son-in-law, musical thinking more or less divided; Liszt is credited with inventing the symphonic poem, Wagner for - well, doing everything that he did with those vast spans of music, through-composed. But to Felix, there was no conflict between traditional symphonic form and 'programme music'. The ecstasy of a response to the Amalfi coastline, the mist of Scottish Highlands, seasickness around the Hebrides, the lift of the heart as the weather clears to let the ship through for its prosperous voyage - all these were Mendelssohn's, tucked neatly into symphonic sonata-form movements, rondos and scherzos that Mozart or Schubert would have been proud of.

Franz Schubert: Perhaps they would have been friends if only Schubert hadn't died aged 31 when Mendelssohn was only 19. We can picture a twenty-something Felix travelling to Vienna, clustering entranced into a Schubertiad performance, embracing "the little mushroom" and subsequently throwing his own considerable influence behind the championing of this towering musical genius to whom he would not have hesitated for one moment to defer. If Schubert had lived, Mendelssohn is the man who might have helped to change his fortunes, as he endeavoured to do posthumously.

Jenny Lind: We know a little about her already.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold: Another century, yet a kindred soul - also a staggeringly astonishing child prodigy and also of assimilated Jewish background. And Mendelssohn's music effectively saved his life. It was thanks to Max Reinhardt's film of A Midsummer Night's Dream (1934-5) that Korngold first went to Hollywood; Reinhardt invited him to arrange Mendelssohn's incidental music for the movie. The resulting score is of course recognisably Mendelssohn, but became recognisably Korngold as well: he paid tribute to it by making it his own. Then Warner Brothers invited him back to write original scores for them; hence he was in Hollywood composing The Adventures of Robin Hood at the time of the Anschluss. Had he still been in Vienna, he would probably have died. Both composers were, of course, banned by the Nazis.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert: Fanfare, please! Mendelssohn's own account proves the musicality of this royal pair: 'I begged the Prince to begin by playing something, so that I could boast of it in Germany. He played a chorale by heart, with the pedals - and so charmingly, precisely and accurately that it would have done credit to a professional....Then it was my turn, and I began with the chorus from St.Paul, How Lovely are the Messengers. Before I had come to the end of the first verse, they both (Victoria and Albert) began singing the chorus, and Prince Albert managed the stops so cleverly for me...that I was quite enchanted.'

Who else shall we invite? Suggestions, please?


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