Mendelssohn first performed Bach’s St Matthew Passion in 1829, so it is perhaps no surprise that the symphony he began work on shortly after is steeped in the atmosphere of the Reformation. Like Bach before him Mendelssohn transcends musical devices to create a work of quest, magic and beauty. Composed to mark the 300th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession, a foundational moment in early Protestantism, he weaves the ‘Dresden Amen’ (also used by Wagner in Parsifal) and the chorale ‘Ein feste burg ist unser Gott’ into a grand symphonic statement of faith.
A less instant success than its predecessor, Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 2 has over time emerged from its shadow. Composed for the Birmingham Music Festival of 1837, its quality lies in the role of the pianist as the central protagonist in a rhapsodic ensemble drama.
The last of his symphonies to be completed in 1842, the ‘Scottish’ Symphony (No. 3) has its origins in the same 1829 grand tour as The Hebrides overture and the ‘Italian’ Symphony (No. 4). Whilst the Scottish-ness of the work is much debated – where we could hear the wilds of the West Coast or majestic Caledonian rivers we might equally detect the misty Germanic woods of Weber’s Der Freischutz – it reveals an artist whose enduring appeal lays in his carefully wrought balance of the old and novel.
Part of Mendelssohn: The Complete Symphonies. Hear all five symphonies directed by Sir András Schiff at the Southbank Centre in London from 24 – 26 April.