Today marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), the composer that contemporary, Robert Schumann, called "the Mozart of the 19th century." It is perhaps not as highly publicized that Mendelssohn began composing music as a child, much as Mozart did, and was, also like Mozart, considered a child prodigy due to his virtuosic playing of the piano at an early age. The wonderfully varied Mendelssohn canon includes orchestral, choral, chamber, piano, and organ music, as well as songs for both solo voice and duet, and concertos for violin and piano.
Many thanks to Becky of Farm School for sending me a recent New York Times article about Mendelssohn. While quietly lamenting the fact that "composer anniversaries aren't what they used to be," the article goes on to list favorite Mendelssohn recordings of the classical music critics at the Times. (The online article at the Times website has many links worth checking out and a few selections of music to be heard.) Four of the five critics listed recordings of the Violin Concerto in E Minor (which I blogged about a couple of weeks ago), all played by different violinists, from an old Jascha Heifitz recording with the BSO through to Janine Jansen's 2007 recording with the Leipzig Guwandhaus Orchestra, and on to the even more recent 2008 recording of Daniel Hope with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. Mendelssohn himself directed the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra from 1835 until his death in 1847, with one year's hiatus from 1844 to 1845.
While I really enjoyed the lists of recordings and the mini-reviews that went along with them, I was especially glad to be reminded of two of Mendelssohn's instrumental works that made the critics' lists: the Octet in E-flat Major for Strings (1825), and the Hebrides Overture in B Minor (written 1830; revised 1832).
The Octet, written when Mendelssohn was just sixteen, is fun, fun, fun--both to play and listen to--and critic Vivien Schweitzer calls the lively last movement, "the ultimate antidepressant":
According to critic Allan Kozinn, a multi-tracked performance of the Octet by the Emerson String Quartet wins his favor with its "brisk, shapely high-energy performance." The four-cd set of all of Mendelssohn's quartets plus more chamber music, including the Octet, as performed by SUNY-Stony Brook's quartet-in-residence, is from 2005. The recordings are not available as mp3s from Amazon, but can be found on iTunes. The bonus tracks of the Octet found there are the separate recordings of the two halves of the octet (as played, twice, by the players in the quartet) that were put together for the final recording. On the enhanced (and more expensive) CDs available through Amazon, a video of the making of this recording is included.
My favorite movement of the four (Allegro moderato, ma con fuoco; Andante; Scherzo; and Presto), while hard to choose, is probably the Scherzo:
On to the Hebrides Overture. I love the mysterious opening of this piece, even if the bassoon, violas, and cellos get to have all the fun. Fortunately the rest of the orchestra gets to join in after a bit:
Mendelssohn was inspired to write both the Hebrides (or "Fingal's Cave," as it is sometimes called) Overture and his Symphony No. 3 in A Minor ("Scottish") by his many trips to Great Britain, made between 1829 and 1847.
Take some time to listen to some Mendelssohn today--I can't think of a better way to honor the birthday of a great composer.