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Notes and Editorial Reviews
MENDESSOHN UNKOWN A film by Angelo Bozzolini
Roberto Prosseda, piano
Sonig Tchakerian, violin
Steven Isserlis, cello
and many others
Roberto Prosseda in concert at the Teatro Olympico, Italy, 11 June 2009.
Song Without Words, Op. 19 No. 6 ‘Venetian Boat Song No. 1’
Song Without Words, Op. 30 No. 6 ‘Venetian Boat Song No. 2’
Sonata for violin and piano in D minor (1823, reconstructed 2005 by Alessandro Solbiati)
Capriccio in E flat minor (1823)
Variations brillantes for cello and piano by Mendelssohn and Joseph Merk (1830, cello part reconstructed 2008 by Gabrio Taglietti)
NTSC 16:9 (documentary) / 4:3 (bonus)
Sound format: PCM Stereo
Region code: 0 (worldwide)
Languages: Italian, English, German, French
Booklet notes: English, German, French
Running time: 54 mins (documentary) + 45 mins (bonus)
No. of DVDs: 1
R E V I E W:
EUROARTS 2058858 (DVD: 54:00) A film by Angelo Bozzolini
Songs Without Words:
Venetian Boat Songs, Nos. 1 and 2.
Violin Sonata in d
(reconstructed by Alessandro Solbiati
Variations Brillantes for Cello & Piano
(cello part reconstructed 2008 by Gabrio Taglietti
Roberto Prosseda (pn);
Sonig Tchakerian (vn);
Steven Isserlis (vc) (45:00) Live: Vicenza 6/11/2009
This excellent and highly imaginative film on the great composer begins with a somewhat contentious claim, that even as recently as the 1970s Mendelssohn was undervalued as a composer, few of his works known or appreciated by the public. I’m not certain if this is how filmmaker Angelo Bozzolini remembers it in Italy, but possibly this is so; because although we certainly did not hear or know as many Mendelssohn works back then than we do now (particularly the piano sonatas, string quartets, and the then-obscure choral works such as
Die erste Walpurgisnacht
), a certain core repertoire of Mendelssohn was known and not really that small. The five symphonies, the
Midsummer Night’s Dream
music, the E-Minor Violin Concerto and Piano Concerto No. 1, the Octet, several of the
Songs Without Words,
“Auf flügeln des gesanges,”
Elijah, St. Paul,
the Piano Trio in d, and the concert overtures
Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage,
were staples when I was a child and to them were added further works by the time I graduated college in 1972. In America, at least, Mendelssohn wasn’t really so much undervalued as just not completely investigated.
But I digress. Basically this film is wonderful, combining still images, historical silent film footage of, for instance, Venice and Germany from the early 20th century, many famous musicians (Riccardo Chailly, Kurt Masur, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Roberto Prosseda, Charles Rosen, Lang Lang, and Steven Isserlis, the latter related in his lineage to Mendelssohn but not mentioned as such here) and even computer-created moving figures of Goethe and Wagner to add to the presentation. The latter were a surprise to me, at first comical in effect (mostly because we have Goethe and Wagner speaking
) but not entirely irrelevant to the presentation. (Later on we get a few visits from a virtual “musician” named Elio…yet, oddly, no animated Mendelssohn!) Much is made of the fact that, as an assimilated Jew, Mendelssohn found a certain amount of acceptance during his lifetime that was quickly nullified and dismissed after his death. The “talking Wagner” put it best: it “hurt him” to have to say these things about his former colleague because there were things he admired in his music, but as with so much German writing about German-Jewish composers, he felt there was always a feeling of an “adopted nationality” in Mendelssohn’s music, a “superficiality” due to the fact that he “didn’t belong.” In addition to the attitudes of the Catholic Church, one historian points out here that a principal cause of German anti-Semitism was this nationalistic feeling of the “Volk,” of native people tied to their Fatherland that no outsider could really be, and since Jews were the largest minority they were the biggest targets of exclusion and mistrust.
“What my music conveys to me is not too vague but, on the contrary, too defined for me to put into words,” Mendelssohn once wrote in a letter. “If you ask me what I was thinking when I composed a
Song Without Words,
I’d answer, ‘The music the way I wrote it!’” In one respect Bozzlini is entirely right: Over the past 30 years Mendelssohn’s reputation has grown somewhat, so that we now recognize him the way he was described during his lifetime, as “the second Mozart”—Goethe thought him even better than the first. Masur makes the perceptive comment that, if we today often think of his religious oratorios as “religious kitsch,” it’s not due to the quality of the music but to the pompous, overly slow performances that became all too familiar during the 20th century. There is certainly some justification for this; one need only think of the way Bach’s great cantatas and passions were conducted as late as the 1960s to realize that musical style makes a tremendous difference in the emotional impact of a work. “I’m not made for popularity,” Mendelssohn wrote in another letter. “I wouldn’t like to gain it or tends towards it.” Surprising words, I think, from a composer whose core works have always been among the most popular at symphony concerts for as long as I’ve been around, but then I think: How many people know the “Lobgesang” Symphony as opposed to the “Italian”? Not that many, I would imagine.
Of course, much is made of his reverence for Bach which dated at least as far back as 1828 when he wrote his own fugues using Bach as a model (but not just copies; his were quite original). One sees the statue of Bach that Mendelssohn had erected, paid for in part by an organ recital he gave at St. Thomas Church. Naturally, the famous 1829 resurrection of the
St. Matthew Passion
is discussed, not a “historically informed” performance, but one that put Bach back on the musical map. In another letter, we learn that although Felix always greatly admired his sister Fanny’s music, he told her to put it aside to tend to her six-month-old son.
With reconstructions, one musicologist assures us, “we’re always left with a relative result,” but it’s better than nothing, thus a certain amount of reconstructed Mendelssohn is heard in the live concert at the Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza, Italy given by Prosseda, Isserlis, and violinist Sonig Tchakerian on June 11, 2009. The early (1823) Violin Sonata was reconstructed in 2005 by Alessandro Solbiati while the Variations Brillantes was completed by Joseph Merk with the aid of Gabrio Taglietti, who reconstructed the missing cello part in 2008. The Teatro Olimpico is a big, roomy concert space with plenty of natural reverb, yet the concert is clearly miked and the balance of the instruments sounds completely natural. The performances tend to be fairly heavy in romantic feeling yet are clear enough to reveal their structure. There are some considerably fiery passages for the violin in the sonata, played with tremendous élan by Tchakerian, and Prosseda is not shy in his piano accompaniment, either. (FYI, Prosseda plays a Fazioli piano.) The best thing you can say about the violin sonata or the cello variations is that they do indeed sound like “real” Mendelssohn—all the peculiar twists and turns—but the violin piece is only a one-movement work, and I think the composer may have had at least two others in mind. Prosseda’s performances of the two “Venetian Gondola Songs” from the
Songs Without Words
are introspective and moody, oddly appropriate for this music which is more evocative of Mendelssohn’s mood in Venice rather than his actual experiences. Nonetheless, Prosseda brings out the marvelous contrapuntal quality of the op. 19/6 piece extremely well. As it turns out the cello variations are, like so much of Mendelssohn’s music, not merely well crafted but highly imaginative (or, at least, as imaginative as the combined talents of Mendelssohn, Merk, and Taglietti could make them).
In toto, an excellent and often entertaining documentary, but I have just one small complaint: Somehow or other, Mendelssohn himself always seems to be a figure in the background. He’s talked about, analyzed, quoted, and discussed. We hear words from his letters and see some of his paintings. But the man himself remains a bit of a shadow. Perhaps that was Bozzolini’s intent, but if so I find it just a bit odd. Otherwise, however, this is well worth owning and seeing more than once.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley Read less
Works on This Recording
Average Customer Review: ( 1 Customer Review )
Home screenings of this superb work August 10, 2013
By Anthony G. (SANTA FE, NM) See All My Reviews
"This documentary is so interesting, well done, feeling, that it is almost indistinguishable from a feature film. It contains some animated surprises that will beguile and delight you. I have never done this before, but on several occasions I have invited friends over to my home to watch this DVD with me. These may very well be the first Mendelssohn Opening Film Nights in history. You will adore this DVD. I wish more were made like this."