I prefer Mendelssohn’s early stuff (to Mozart’s)
There is nothing in Mozart’s early output to match the compositions Mendelssohn wrote aged 16 and 17
Jörg Widmann: approached Mendelssohn with the licence of an interpreter who takes composer-like possession of the music
When it comes to musical prodigies, Mendelssohn outshines even Mozart. There is a great difference in scale, to be sure. Mozart, toured and promoted around Europe, and produced far more in his early years than the cosseted Mendelssohn. But there is nothing in Mozart’s early output to match the Octet that Mendelssohn wrote at the age of 16, or the Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture that followed at the age of 17.
The musical adventurousness of those early masterpieces, the joie de vivre of the octet, the orchestral wizardry of the overture, is rarely conjured up in performances of Mendelssohn’s later works. But at the National Concert Hall on Thursday, the Irish Chamber Orchestra under Jörg Widmann played both the Hebrides Overture and the Scottish Symphony with a feverish excitement that brought a real cutting edge to music that in other hands can sound comfortable.
Widmann is a conductor who likes to live in the moment. He’s also an accomplished clarinettist and conductor, and he approached Mendelssohn with the freedom of a virtuoso instrumentalist and the licence of an interpreter who takes composer-like possession of the music he is performing.
Here, it was hard to believe he would hold everything together. Stability was threatened by his extremes: there were speeds that almost made me as a listener feel breathless, and hushes so quiet they almost tipped over into inaudibility. But everything worked out, as always happens in the best of adventures.
There was nothing cliched about the music-making. The supremely logical side of Mendelssohn – the man who dotted every i and crossed every t, for whom classical balance was of paramount importance – would, I think, have been delighted with the results, assuming, of course, that the fluidity of tempo that made everything possible was not an issue for him.
Widmann was the clarinet soloist with viola player Tabea Zimmermann in the 1911 double concerto by Max Bruch. Bruch’s fame is so securely anchored in just a single mid 19th-century work – his First Violin Concerto, premiered by the great Joseph Joachim in 1868 – that many people are surprised to learn he survived into the 20th century. In fact, he lived to the age of 82, and was composing right up to his death in 1920.
Bruch was briefly a leading light of German music, but his star quickly faded. He once gave his own view of a man he was seen to rival, Johannes Brahms.
“Brahms was a far greater composer than I am for several reasons,” he told Arthur Abell. “He cared not at all about the public reaction or what the critics wrote. I had a wife and children to support and educate. I was compelled to earn money with my compositions. Therefore I had to write works that were pleasing and easily understood. I never wrote down to the public; my artistic conscience would never permit me to do that. I always composed good music but it was music that sold readily. There was never anything to quarrel about in my music as there was in that of Brahms. I never outraged the critics by those wonderful conflicting rhythms, which are so characteristic of Brahms. Nor would I have dared to leave out the sequences of steps progressing from one key to another, which often make Brahms’s modulations so bold and startling. Neither did I venture to paint in such dark colours – a la Rembrandt – as he did. All this, and much more militated against Brahms in his own day, but these very attributes will contribute to his stature 50 years from now, because they proclaim him a composer of marked originality. I consider Brahms one of the greatest personalities in the entire annals of music.”