Tuesday, 30 June 2009
'Italian' whips up a storm
It’s high time I scratched the surface of anniversary hero Mendelssohn. Earlier this year, I regretfully said no to being a panellist on a Radio 3 Mendelssohn Weekend special, if only because the nice researcher wrote ‘I hear you’re a Mendelssohn expert’, and I had to respond that I was nothing of the sort – as it turned out, few of the guests were - though I know what I like. I could certainly have rounded on certain pundits who dismiss our Felix as a second-ranker ('trained from infancy to be polite to the banking classes...a shortcoming that he never fully overcame', etc - I won't grace the rest with a link). Even if he’d died at the age of 17, having written those cracking string symphonies, the Octet and above all the Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture, he’d still have left us one of the greatest miracles in all music, a Shakespearean musical narrative suitable for all ages and tastes.
On Saturday, staying at friend Hen’s family home in north Oxford, I had a chance to broaden Mendelssohnian horizons a little. Lucky Oxford: Andras Schiff was in town, conducting and playing with a suitably downsized Philharmonia in the Sheldonian Theatre. I've never heard before the B minor String Symphony with which they began – an astonishingly mature lamentatory intro and sprightly allegro with a lyrical theme only Mendelssohn could have written. The Violin Concerto was a performance of merely competition-quality from the soloist, 18 year old Serge Zimmermann: well intoned after a dodgy start and muscly at times, but without the sweetness and smiles the work needs. Schiff’s own centre-stage playing in the Second Piano Concerto kept this charmer on the move, as he also does everything he conducts. He never goes for over-sentimentality but the sentiment was certainly there in amongst the sharp profiles. The D minor Concerto boasts another vivacious finale, and an even more striking link between the first two movements than the Violin Concerto.
Indeed, it struck me afresh that Mendelssohn at his best triumphs on all counts – structure (plenty of surprises when you least expect them), rhythmic energy, pleasing thematic shapes and a classically poised gift for orchestration (think of the flutes in the steady religious procession of the ‘Italian’ Symphony, the lower-strings-and-horn counterpoint added to the fiddling in the Violin Concerto's finale). As for the symphony as a whole, I can think of several Beethoven movements I’d sacrifice for any one of these four. More players onstage helped to fight against the rather airless acoustics of the Sheldonian, and I loved the valveless ‘period’ horns’ bite in the scherzo trio.
They added menace, too, to the saltarello, which was already rather scary since we glimpsed lightning through the Sheldonian's upper windows and heard distant rumbles of thunder (you can see how threatening the skies were in the above photo, taken during the interval). Whatever the shortcomings may be in terms of sound, isn’t it a special pleasure to be in a hall where plentiful natural light bathes the scene? I’m thinking, too, of Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall and London’s Cadogan Hall. The Sheldonian is a beautiful building, if stylistically a bit of a hotchpotch. Pevsner takes young Wren’s revolutionary classical exterior to task for its ‘immaturity’, and laments the un-rousing quality of Streeter’s painted ceiling. That's nicely complemented, though, by Sir T G Jackson’s 1876 organ case.
There – I got the name ‘Jackson’ in to the blog. Do you berate me for having kept mum about the late Michael? Apart from a certain vague sadness at the ‘too soon’ aspect, I don't have much to express: was charmed by the youngster’s ebullience in the Jackson Five, never really got to know the hits of his heyday (and some say I should), and after that, well, has there been much to it except good stuff to dance to as well as all the peripheral seediness? Other untimely deaths of those I never met that touched me more would have to be those of Princess Diana (yes, really, at least to start with), Derek Jarman, Freddie Mercury, the fabulously funny Linda Smith. I’m sure there are many others.
Glad, anyway, to be oblivious of the media feeding frenzy in the cloistered calm of Oxford. Framing our concert and a lazy afternoon on a north Oxford lawn catching up with Alan Hollinghurst were two of our now-ritual visits to Christ Church Cathedral evensongs. This choir has to be the best I’ve ever heard in the context of church services.
Saturday afternoon, before the heavens opened in tropical rainforest style, was mostly Anglo-Irish blowsiness: Stanford in C, stout and steaky as only the Christ Church choristers know how to make it in the Glorias, and Bairstow’s ‘Blessed city, heavenly Salem’, suitably brilliant for the shining of the pearly gates and fading to a ghostly quiet close.
Sunday introduced me to Tomkins’s Fifth Service – such fun when the choir prancingly delight in the putting-down of the mighty from their seat – and the anthem was Palestrina’s ‘Tu es Petrus’. Plenty of fine solos all round, and we were lucky to catch them before they disappear for the summer holidays.