Felex Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809-1847)
Concerto in E Minor for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 64
Composed while Mendelssohn was vacationing with his family in Soden near Frankfurt am Main in September 1844, the concerto is the last of his larger orchestral works, but shows the spontaneity of youth. Though the first movement is in classical Sonata form: Exposition, Development, recapitulation and Coda, there are several innovative features. After the first performance in March 13, 1845 a critic writing in Robert Schumann’s musical journal “new Zeitschrift fur Musik” mentioned one such originality – its lack of an orchestral introduction. But there are others: the Cadenza is at the end of the Development (rather than at the end of the Recapitulation), the transition from the Allegro molto appassionato into the Andante is only one sustained bassoon tone, and the last movement is ingeniously connected to the preceding section by a ruminative violin solo.
To quote Karl-Heinz Kohler in his excellent article on Mendelssohn in the New Grove Dictionary: “One of the most lyrical of Mendelssohn’s compositions, this concerto stands besides Beethoven and Brahms as one of the most significant works in the genre.”
“I learned this concerto when I was 13 or 14,” says Michael Antonello, “and probably performed it more than any other work during my youth, so I have lived with it my entire musical life. It is truly a magnificent concerto that can stand up to any of the other “greats”, but I feel the work’s difficulty is underrated. Though it was written in the Romantic tradition the piece has the simplicity and transparency of Mozart – no place to hide! And as the Beethoven Concerto is famous for the difficulty of the opening, violinists can easily develop a mental block over the broken arpeggio passage in the Mendelssohn. It is not as straightforward as one might think.”
“The balance between the solo violin and orchestra are exceptional and time has proven that its aesthetic form and structure is architecturally near perfect.” Maestro Philip Greenburg adds: “Musicologists can marvel at the structure, form and architecture, while the listener simply engages in its melodic beauty. Like Schubert, Mendelssohn had an unsurpassed gift of melody, and the work can be compared from start to finish to a luscious soprano aria.”
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Major, Op. 61
This concerto, composed between the Third (“Eroica”) Symphony and the Fifth, is an expression of Beethoven’s political stand: revolution of the people against tyrannical monarchies, and yet there is also an inward looking quality, perhaps from the growing loss of his hearing. Completed, according to Beethoven’s student Carl Czerny, two days before the first performance on Dec. 23, 1806 by Franz Clement, the 26-year-old concertmaster of the orchestra at the Theater an der Wien, who had commissioned the work, it was harshly criticized due to the lack of rehearsal time. This is probably why the concerto did not gain popularity until Joseph Joachim, aged 13, performed it in London with Felix Mendelssohn conducting. One critic of the first performance wrote: “There is a consensus among experts about Beethoven’s Concerto: There is a great deal in it, which is beautiful, but the continuity seems often to be torn apart, and the endless repletion of certain commonplace passages can easily become wearisome.”
The next year Beethoven alternated details of the work and later arranged the concerto for Muzio Clementi, a London-based composer, pianist, piano-maker and published, as a piano concerto. He even put off starting a mass commissioned by Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy, Haydn’s patron, in order to concentrate his attention on the arrangement. This gave him the chance to revise the solo violin part, which today still stands as an unsurpassed monument to the concerto repertoire and Beethoven’s genius.
“This violin concerto by Beethoven is one of the most difficult ever written,” comments Michael Antonello, “not because of pyrotechnics, bu because the solo line is so exposed – play out of tune and the whole world knows. In fact, many violinists never perform the work. In learning the concerto I found that it not only trained my hands, but also forced me to really learn my instrument. The first five times I performed it I didn’t play my best. I am however proud of this recording.”
“The opening is one of the most daunting in the entire repertoire,” he continues. “You stand for three minutes waiting while the orchestra plays. Your tension mounts until the solo entrance – broken octaves. Everyone knows if it is good or bad. I practiced the concerto for five years before committing it to disc and I feel that it has done more to improve my playing than any other work. Maestro Greenberg adds: “This music is a miracle that surpasses other symphonic masterpieces with a significance that is inexplicable. To analyze its greatness is futile. It is a work of singular genius by the greatest composer of all time.