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


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.”

It is still startling to realise that Bruch’s Concerto for clarinet and viola was heard for the first time in a world that already knew Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Scriabin, Debussy and Ravel. It’s well-crafted and ridiculously, unashamedly old-fashioned, making fewer concessions to its own time than a Morgan sports car does to the 21st century. Widmann and Zimmermann play it with energetic glee, as if it were a long-lost masterpiece.

The fourth work on the programme was a real surprise, Widmann’s own Fourth String Quartet, performed not in an arrangement, but as a quartet, pure and simple, by four members of the orchestra. Including it in this form was a gesture of undeniable chutzpah, letting orchestral musicians in an orchestral concert show their mastery of the most demanding of chamber music forms.

The ICO has given its Dublin concerts in the boxy acoustic of the RDS. Before that, when Anthony Marwood was artistic director, they determinedly gave minority-interest programmes at the NCH, where the predictably small audiences made for an often dismal atmosphere, even if the playing was usually first-class. This latest Widmann concert was a reminder of how rewarding it is when the ICO and the NCH are a real musical match. There’s no way the concert would have sounded as well at the RDS.

Amateur greatness of New Dublin Voices
Saturday brought a new initiative from the Irish Composers’ Collective, a collaboration with the much-lauded chamber choir New Dublin Voices and its conductor, Bernie Sherlock.

There’s an argument that there’s simply no comparison between amateur and professional choirs. Highly trained voices tend not to blend as well, and the best amateur groups have a soft-textured beauty that is all their own.

New Dublin Voices have this in abundance, and the ICC composers who featured – Peter Leavy, Anna Clifford, David Collier, Donal McErlaine, Patrick Connolly, Kian Geiselbrechtinger and David Bremner — are fortunate to have found such musically lovely advocates. The standout performance among the ICC composer’s works was Geiselbrechtinger’s Arrgh , a journey from a rough, almost electronic-sounding world into one of sweetness.

Among the non-ICC pieces, the most persuasive performance was of Michael Holohan’s Bagairt na Marbh , which, although it was written decades before the choir came into existence, sounded like it might have been conceived specially for them.

Lang Lang, last but not least

At Symphony Hall in Birmingham on Friday, I heard Chinese mega-star pianist Lang Lang play the programme of Mozart sonatas and Chopin ballades that’s he’s bringing to the NCH on

April 19th. I hadn’t heard his Chopin ballades before, but if you want to hear these pieces played from a Lisztian perspective, then Lang Lang would appear to be your man. The interview I did with him after the concert will be published in The Irish Times next week.


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