2 + 1 musical prodigies – The Boston Musical Intelligencer


Gil Shaham (photo by Hilary Scott)

Hearing the Tanglewood premiere of Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel’s Overture in C major conducted by Andris Nelsons on Sunday strengthened our belief that Felix’s sister displayed exceptional musical talent at a young age. When she was 11, her composition teacher Carl Friedrich Zelter praised her abilities to Goethe. Would she have been as great a composer as her brother, if she had been able to enter the public sphere? As philosopher Hilary Putnam liked to point out, it’s hard to argue for or against a counterfactual (“If you had a brother, would he like kreplach?”). Such debates are largely unproductive. Its overture in C major, probably composed in 1830-1832 and therefore contemporary with the work of Felix Reformation Symphony, is his only known purely orchestral work. It is composed in a fairly simple sonata-allegro form with a slow introduction.

Nelsons gave it an attentive but spirited read. He pointed out the Mozartian touches on a Mannheim rocket, a stuttering motif in the transition to the second theme, and drew attention to his brother’s clear quote. Dream of a summer night opening in the beautiful second theme. Thunderous eardrums gave drama at the end, and Elizabeth Rowe’s exquisite flute imbued the piece with nostalgia, creating a subtle tension with the bold march and rapid tremolos of the coda. If the composer had heard the work being performed, she might have revised it in some places. Or perhaps she deliberately refrained from revealing herself out of a sense of propriety as was expected of women of her social status at that time.

Gil Shaham stepped in to replace Dutch piano duo Lucas and Arthur Jussen who were scheduled to perform Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra in E flat major, K. 365, but were unable to travel due to COVID restrictions. Instead, we were treated to Mozart’s delightful Violin Concerto No. 3 in G major, K. 216, written in 1775, possibly for his fellow violinist Gaetano Brunetti at the court of Salzburg. Expansive and playful work, it overflows with melodic inventiveness and notably explores the possibilities of the Rondeau in the final movement.

Nelsons gave the opening G major orchestral theme a light and slightly martial touch. Shaham entered with a more sober and serious tone. The orchestra gradually coaxed Shaham’s violin into a sort of confession, becoming happily and operatively “tragic” in the cadence. As the ensuing adagio opened with the gently pulsating main theme, Shaham brought his hand to his heart in tribute. He then takes up the theme on the violin an octave higher, with a gentle restraint, evoking a love song. Slowly, Shaham’s loving violin gained the empathy of the orchestra, as the opera postures faded into real intimacy. Shaham’s most memorable moments were the exquisitely sweet passages, when the sound almost seemed to fade away but the emotional depth soared. The cadence sounded like an aria, singing about love and memories. Shaham’s violin became plaintive, but remained beautifully devoid of artifice.

The lively rocking, swaying, Rondeau now brings Shaham back to the dance of life, culminating with the folkloric theme of Strasbourg and its “musette” side. Shaham stood next to Nelsons as they carefully coordinated the timing. The joy was pure “Age of Sensitivity”, beautifully natural (as opposed to baroque) but rooted in wisdom (as opposed to romantic impulsiveness). Shaham’s wise and understated violin perfectly combined with Nelsons’ intelligent understanding of Mozart’s lightness to give the piece its full impact.

Felix Mendelssohn composed his Symphony in D major / D minor on behalf of Emperor Charles V for the 300e anniversary of the presentation of the Augsburg Confession, the first confession of faith of the Lutheran Church. His sister Fanny gave him the name Symphony of the Reformation, but for various reasons the festival organizers might have thought it was too symphonic; it was not part of the festivities. Mendelssohn tried to play it at symphony concerts, but there it was considered too religious, and Felix seems to have lost confidence in the symphony; it was not published until 1868, hence the late cataloging under n ° 5, op. 107.

Nelsons skillfully reconciled his sacred and secular dimensions to provide us with a cohesive experience. The opening came like a dawn heralding a new day, leading to dramatically prophetic horns, then shifting from the solid, solid ground of the first theme to a turbulent transition to a prayerful second theme. Development has caused opposing forces to juxtapose, alternating conflict, the aspiration for freedom, oppression and resolution, until the resolution becomes firm enough to prevail. Nelsons made the allegro vivacious that followed as a celebratory release, with hints of pastoral beauty in the trio (Rousseau?), Followed by a more assertive and confident return from the A section.

Why, then, have we heard such sadness in the third Andante movement? Nelsons imbued it with a feeling of lament, reinforced by Rowe’s spellbinding and compassionate flute as he transitioned into the final movement. (Was the celebration premature? Is liberation from ecclesiastical tyranny, as such, insufficient to bring humanity to the Enlightenment? Is the impulse to kill, oppress and destroy too deeply rooted in us?) The magnificent flute solo sounded like a spiritual call to gather and rediscover the safeguards of the sacred. A glorious tutti in the first theme and turbulent currents leading to massive chords in the conclusion suggested a chastened humanity learning to cooperate for the greater good. Overcoming bipolarities, Nelsons read Felix’s Symphony of the Reformation like an urgent spur to harmonize us.

Leon Golub is an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge and has been a lover of classical music for over 50 years.

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