Following the sell-out success of our Beethoven Piano Concerto series together in 2022, we reunite with Sir András Schiff for an immersive journey through the quintet of masterworks that spanned Mendelssohn’s tragically short life.
All three pieces performed on the first night of Mendelssohn: The Complete Symphonies exhibit the scintillating promise of his early career. At the London premiere of Symphony No. 1 in 1829 one critic wrote that “Fertility of invention and novelty of effect, are what first strike the hearers of M. Mendelssohn’s symphony”. It is followed by the rambunctious Piano Concerto No. 1, whilst the colours of Italy fly out of the orchestra from the first sun-drenched bars of Symphony No. 4.
Written when he was just 15 years old, what became known as Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 1 curiously dates from the same year as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was premiered. It was not, strictly speaking, his first foray into symphonic forms, being preceded by the 12 sparkling string symphonies he wrote from 1821 to 1823. Composed for the birthday celebrations of his beloved older sister, Fanny – though not performed to the public until 1827 – it is a prodigious work that owes a debt to past masters but also bears the trademarks and effortless charm of the more familiar later works..
1829 was the year Mendelssohn undertook his grand tour of Europe. It inspired a treasure trove of works, including The Hebrides overture and tonight’s other two works. The ‘Italian’ Symphony (eventually known to history as No. 4) was, unusually, a nickname drawn from Mendelssohn himself. From the swirling opening where our feet barely touch the ground, through a soulful Neapolitan procession, to the ‘saltarello’ finale with its biting rhythms and daring minor key inflections, it is the perfect example of the thrilling rush of Mendelssohn’s music in full flow.
The Piano Concerto No. 1 was premiered by Mendelssohn himself in Munich in 1831, although it also has something of an Italian link being composed in part in Rome. The Concerto demonstrates Mendelssohn’s natural affinity for crafting piano technique into a thrilling musical story and a willingness to experiment.
Mendelssohn’s symphonies date from late in his childhood to around five years before his death (at the age of 38). In that sense, they are all youthful works. The timeline is obscured by the cataloguing and naming of the works. We have to look harder to see the evolving artist. Often considered a musical conservative, the opportunity to immerse ourselves in these works and hear them performed on period instruments creates a space to question this conventional thinking. Might his reworking of the foundations of the past be more radical than first impressions suggest?
In addition to the five symphonies, Sir András will direct Mendelssohn’s two piano concertos from the keyboard.
"Fertility of invention and novelty of effect, are what first strike the hearers of M. Mendelssohn's symphony"