Orchestral performances of Early Romantic music are in danger of becoming lost.
Aside from the Cleveland Orchestra and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, orchestras everywhere have lost the ability to play Schubert, Mendelssohn and Schumann at a high level. Performances of Early Romantic music are either overblown, more apt for the music of Mahler, or tepid and finicky, progeny of an original-instrument movement that more often than not has tended to drain expression from music performance.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that there are only a handful of conductors alive that can offer stylish and satisfying performances of Early Romantic repertory—and two of the finest, Claudio Abbado and Kurt Masur, are not long for this world.
Last weekend, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra embarked on a three-week project devoted to music of Mendelssohn, and Joshua and I attended Saturday night’s performance.
The concert began with a performance of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 1 and ended with a performance of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5 (“Reformation”). Between the symphonies was offered a performance of James MacMillan’s “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel”, a percussion concerto in all but name. Roberto Abbado was the evening’s conductor (Abbado will lead all three weeks of the SPCO’s Mendelssohn project).
Mendelssohn’s First Symphony is not interesting, and not often performed. Mendelssohn, fifteen years old at the time he composed the Symphony No. 1, was still grappling with sonata form—the work is formally coherent, but in an academic manner, without imagination and originality—and the work must be accepted as a “study” symphony, unrepresentative of the symphonies the composer would go on to write. Even the themes are undistinguished, something rare in a Mendelssohn composition.
The Fifth Symphony, written six years later, reveals a mature composer. Formal perfection has been allayed with content—there is expression and personality aplenty—and the composer reveals himself to be a commanding symphonist, the most commanding symphonist since Beethoven. Mendelssohn was to remain the preeminent post-Beethoven symphonist until the advent of Brahms.
I did not find the SPCO Mendelssohn performances to be pleasing. The musicians did not seem captivated by Mendelssohn—not unexpected in the First Symphony, but an alarming state of affairs in the Fifth Symphony—and they offered objective, dispassionate, remote playing that I found lifeless and dull. Abbado is a competent conductor of Mendelssohn, but he obviously had been unable to elicit compelling Mendelssohn performances from the Saint Paul musicians.
The musicians revealed themselves to be much more comfortable—and much more committed—in the MacMillan piece.
The last quarter century has witnessed the emergence of a plethora of percussion concertos, most hollow and uninteresting. MacMillan may have written the best of the bunch. “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel” is probably the most-frequently-performed composition written in the last twenty years.
The appeal of “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel” is immediately apparent: it offers ample display of virtuosity for a percussion soloist within a coherent if not beautiful musical framework. MacMillan based his composition on 15th-Century French plainchant, and the work possesses a fevered, spiritual quality that sets it apart from other percussion-based vehicles currently in vogue.
The SPCO musicians gave a blistering performance of “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel”, coming alive for the first and only time all night.
If the music of Mendelssohn was largely beyond them, the music of MacMillan was not.