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.
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.
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.