May 02, 2024

(++++) M AND M

Mozart: Overtures—Ascanio in Alba; Idomeneo, re di Creta; Le nozze di Figaro; Die Entführung aus dem Serail; Così fan tutte; Der Schauspieldirektor; Mitridate, re di Ponto; La finta giardiniera; Don Giovanni; Lucio Silla; La Clemenza di Tito; Die Zauberflöte. Kölner Akademie conducted by Michael Alexander Willens. BIS. $21.99 (SACD).

Mendelssohn: Symphonies Nos. 1-5; A Midsummer Night’s Dream—excerpts. Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich with Chen Reiss and Marie Henriette Reinhold, sopranos, Patrick Grahl, tenor, and Zürcher Sing-Akademie conducted by Paavo Järvi. Alpha. $42.99 (4 CDs).

     During Felix Mendelssohn’s lifetime, comparisons between him and Mozart were frequent: both were seen as tremendous prodigies who began producing exceptionally mature and well-wrought music at an early age and only improved as they got older. The parallels were simplistic and overwrought: for example, yes, Mendelssohn wrote a dozen string symphonies and a movement of a 13th starting in 1821, when he was 12, but Mozart wrote his earliest symphonic works at the age of eight. On the other hand, Mendelssohn did write some extremely notable music when quite young, including the Octet when he was 16 and the Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture when he was 17. On the other other hand, Mozart had been writing operas since the age of 12 (Bastien und Bastienne and La finta semplice). Unfortunately, Mendelssohn and Mozart had something tragic in common later on: Mozart died the month before his 36th birthday and Mendelssohn when he was 38.

     Certainly the composers did have some musical characteristics in common, beyond any biographical similarities: both were concerned with beauty of sound, careful balance of instrumental forces, and clarity and elegance of line; and both were masters of harmony and rhythm. All this becomes clear even when listening to their works in very different genres. For example, a first-rate new BIS recording featuring the Kölner Akademie under Michael Alexander Willens makes a strong argument for the notion that Mozart never wrote an imperfect overture. The dozen examples here, thrown together willy-nilly so that late pieces are somewhat jarringly juxtaposed with much earlier ones, are all highly effective as pure music – despite their original roles as operatic scene-setters (in some cases) or actual compilations of tunes to be heard during the upcoming stage production (in other instances). From Ascanio in Alba (1771) to Die Zauberflöte and La Clemenza di Tito 20 years later, Mozart never lost sight of the purpose of an overture: to get the audience to quiet down and pay attention by creating a purely instrumental sense of what would soon appear in visualized and much more extended form on the stage. It would be hard to overestimate the extent to which Mozart took the quotidian need to get the audience to stop chatting and start focusing and turned it into a musical experience in its own right – sometimes by having the overture play right into a work’s opening scene (as with Die Entführung aus dem Serail), sometimes by making it clear that what was about to be put on display would surely be more interesting and attractive than whatever theatergoers might be discussing before the performance (Le nozze di Figaro, Così fan tutte and many others). The uniform excellence of these overtures, the clarity of line and perfection of sectional balance they all possess, are abundantly clear in the elegant playing of the Kölner Akademie. And Willens does a fine job of accentuating the highly dramatic material in Don Giovanni and Die Zauberflöte while allowing the comedic elements to stand forth clearly in Le nozze di Figaro and Der Schauspieldirektor. There is something to enjoy in all these overtures, even for listeners unfamiliar with the stage works for which they were written. Indeed, even two and a quarter centuries after Mozart’s death, the overtures continue to serve the purpose for which they were designed: to whet the appetite for hearing a great deal more music when the appetizing introduction ends and the main course appears – whether on stage or in recorded form.

     Mendelssohn’s handling of stage music is every bit as adept as Mozart’s when it comes to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, if not in more-general terms (Mendelssohn wrote only three operas, none of which has stood the test of time particularly well). The brilliant sense of curtain-raising in the four opening woodwind chords (which eventually are also used to close the entire stage production) echoes Mozart both in musical thinking and in sound, and the scurrying levity of the overture – coupled with the wry amusement of the Puck-portraying Scherzo – brilliantly transports the audience to Shakespeare’s imagined tale of intermingled and equally star-crossed human and fairy lovers. The entirety of Mendelssohn’s music for the play runs less than an hour, so the decision to offer only 42 minutes of excerpts on a new Alpha recording featuring he Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich under Paavo Järvi is perplexing – doubly so because the playing is so good, the conducting so sure-handed, and the music so consistently appropriate and delightful. It is good to hear any of the music that Mendelssohn wrote for this stage production – and of course almost impossible not to hear the Wedding March frequently, it being one of the most popular pieces of classical music ever written. But it would have been nice if Järvi had included the few brief pieces missing from this CD to give audiences a touch of additional enjoyment.

     The stage music is, in any case, a kind of addendum to a release whose primary purpose is to present all five of Mendelssohn’s symphonies. Unlike the earlier string symphonies, which are distinctly Mozartean (and reflective of Haydn perhaps even more strongly), the five full-orchestra symphonies show Mendelssohn forging his own style and his own way. The fleetness and light elegance of the flowing themes continue to show a debt to Mozart, and Symphony No. 1 in particular contains elements derived from Mendelssohn’s respect for the earlier composer. But by the time he wrote his second symphony – eventually published (and only after his death) as No. 5, “Reformation,” and planned to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession of 1530 – Mendelssohn was clearly on his own distinct symphonic path. The “Reformation” symphony incorporates both the Dresden Amen and the famous melody Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, with Mendelssohn weaving them effectively into a traditional symphonic structure that can be wholly satisfying when presented with suitable grandeur but without trying to overawe audiences. Unfortunately, Järvi’s reading of this symphony is the weakest in his set: No. 5 is paired on a CD with No. 1, and the contrast between the two early works is notable, but while the conductor lets No. 1 flow freely and smoothly, he repeatedly slows down No. 5 to try to focus on elements that Mendelssohn did quite a good job of emphasizing on his own. The result is a “Reformation” that has a stop-and-start quality and is more portentous than it ought to be, almost to the point of pomposity.

     Thankfully, the remainder of this set is much better. Symphony No. 2, “Lobgesang,” is handled particularly well. This extended piece – really a symphony-cantata – takes the basic form of Beethoven’s Ninth (three instrumental movements followed by a choral one) and reverses the relative extent of the component parts: Beethoven wrote about 40 instrumental minutes and about 25 choral ones, while Mendelssohn reduces the first three movements to a total of about 25 minutes and devotes 40 to the choral material. The entirety of Mendelssohn’s work is encapsulated by its “Hymn of Praise” title, as choral and solo vocal portions alike sing the praises of God. The very first notes of the first movement recur at the end of the finale and are something of a leitmotif throughout, giving the work a degree of unity – although in other respects it tends to sprawl and become somewhat verbally (if not musically) repetitive. Järvi neither underplays nor over-inflates the material, and the soloists and chorus all deliver their lines with strength and apparent sincerity, resulting in a genuinely uplifting performance. The readings of Symphony No. 3, “Scottish,” and No. 4, “Italian,” are also quite strong. The works contrast interestingly in more than just key signature (A minor and A major, respectively). A sense of pervasive darkness – not gloom, exactly, but something more crepuscular – hangs over the “Scottish,” and Järvi conveys it well, with the scene-setting of the expansive first movement particularly effective and the contrasts of the middle movements nicely balanced. The very end of the finale is a bit out of keeping with the rest of the performance – a slightly slower tempo would have been more effective – but by and large, this is a well-planned, well-paced and well-played performance. And the “Italian” symphony, which is all sunshine and fervor, is played to the hilt here: bright and bouncy and, especially in the dance-based finale, rhythmically ebullient. As a whole, this is a very fine Mendelssohn symphonic cycle, and the inclusion of most of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a welcome bonus. The totality manages to show the areas in which Mendelssohn did indeed deserve comparison with Mozart as well as the much greater number of ways in which the two composers diverged and produced music that was unique to each of them.

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