A love affair with Mendelssohn at the Anvil

A love affair with Mendelssohn at the Anvil

In these revelatory performances from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Sir András Schiff, no one could possibly doubt his passion for Mendelssohn who Hans von Bulow once waspishly declared “began life as a genius and ended as a talent.” Anticipating a complete traversal of Mendelssohn’s symphonies with the same forces at the Queen ElizabethHall (April 24 th – 26 th), this concert made abundantly clear the affection the players had for thecomposer, Schiff ‘s unequivocal passion for Mendelssohn, described by him as a “love affair”, brought wonderfully alert and incisive playing. There was nothing remotely routine in these performances or anything to suggest those on stage considered the composer merely a talent. 

One is more likely to encounter Mendelssohn’s teenage First Symphony through a recordingthan a live performance – its single outing at the BBC proms only occurred in 2009. Thisaccount made clear the influence of Beethoven in both its dynamism and an obvious referencetothe Fifth Symphony in the Menuetto. Schiff brought an explosive vitality to the outermovements that made the fifteen-year-old composer seem remarkably mature, frisson generated by an ever-vigilant timpanist and well-judged tempi. Pizzicato strings and solo clarinet caught the ear in the concluding Allegro, as did scrupulous string playing for a brief fugato passage. Where the Andante was nobly expressive, the Menuetto was a joyful country dance, and dispelled any good reason why Mendelssohn should have considered substituting the movement for the Scherzo from his Octet. 

Proceedings began with the composer’s First Piano Concerto, a work in three continuous movements and widely thought to have been a favourite of Queen Victoria. Here, Schiffplayed and directed from an 1859 Blüthner, fully exploiting its clean action and achieving an impressive clarity in the rapid passagework, while also perfectly balancing with the OAE. The economically scored Andante (mainly lower strings and woodwind) was particularly elegant, Schiff now focussing on neatly calibrated playing to underline Mendelssohn’s tender ruminations. A return to earlier athleticism for the finale, an account of shared pearls between soloist and orchestra, Schiff now sprinkling fairy dust over Mendelssohn’s scintillation, its coda as thrilling as one might wish for. 

No less vivid was the ‘Italian’ Symphony, Schiff characteristically economical in gesture, but generating a playful and spontaneous response. Its opening Allegro (with exposition repeat) unfolded with just the right sense of breathless joy, fizzing like champagne, with much to enjoy from fleet footed strings and lively exchanges between flute and clarinet. Asteady-asshe-goes tempo brought favourable results in the neighbouring Andante, its walking bass clearly outlined (four double basses arranged behind the wind section and cellos positioned between antiphonal violins), with warmth of expression uppermost. Charm was in abundance for the minuet-like third movement with some mellifluous horn-playing in the Trio. The ‘Saltarello’ Finale was driven hard but not without clear articulation and climaxes that flung you back in your seat – Schiff’s “love affair” with Mendelssohn evident in every bar.

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