F. Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E minor Op. 64
Violinist: Itzak Perlman
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Conductor: Daniel Barenboim
Recorded in Chicago May 1993. Teldec #15870.(On a CD with Brahms’ Double Concerto).
Composer and Artists
Mendelssohn lived from 1809 to 1847, almost the same span as Chopin, and together with Schumann, the three are considered the leaders of early nineteenth-century romanticism. This means that their music is freer in form than the “classical” of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, with a wider range of emotion and expressiveness. According to one critic “If Schumann was the most passionate composer of his generation, Berlioz the most dramatic, and Chopin the most poetic, then certainly Mendelssohn was the most lyrical”. Many of his melodies are instantly appealing; his orchestral settings are varied and interesting, all the while maintaining a foot firmly rooted in musical traditions. Indeed, one of Mendelssohn’s greatest contributions was to re-discover the works of J.S. Bach, and bring them again to public light in a famous performance of the St. Matthew Passion in 1829. Eminent musician, conductor, scholar and administrator, Mendelssohn was renowned as the conductor of the Gewandhaus orchestra in Leipzig from 1835 to his death in 1847.
His boyhood friend Ferdinand David was also the Concertmaster (leader) of the Gewandhaus orchestra, and Mendelssohn resolved to write a Concerto for him. Melodic, lyrical, exciting, at times simply dazzling, the work was immediately acclaimed, and has become one of the great works in the concert violinist’s repertoire.
Itzak Perlman is one of the master violinists of our day. Born in Israel in 1945, american émigré since 1958, a child polio victim who plays seated, he is known for the immense enjoyment and enthusiasm which he brings to his playing and communicates to the audience.
Daniel Barenboim, born in Buenos Aires in 1942 but also of Israeli nationality, is one of today’s leading musicians, famous as pianist, conductor, and peacemaker through music.
The possibilities of the violin
The violin is a smallish box of wood (violin-shaped, you will have guessed) which, more or less in the middle supports a “bridge” – a piece of wood placed vertically. A neck is glued to one side, and four strings are taken from the end of the neck, over the bridge, to the other side of the box. The strings are “excited” by a bow drawn across them, which makes them vibrate. The different notes are made by the violinist pressing the strings against the finger-board (attached to the neck) to shorten the vibrating length of the string. Sounds so simple, no?
But such an instrument, in the hands of Itzak Perlman, accompanied by Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony with agility and sensitivity, leads to the most astonishing display of musical expressiveness. Virtuosity, emotion, excitement – it’s all there.
The apparent simplicity of producing a sound from the violin makes it possible, at the same time, to produce a great range of different sounds. Since the pitch of the note is determined by the position of the left hand fingers on the strings, the pitch may be bang on, or slightly off, when this would be more expressive. The volume of sound depends on the pressure from the bow and the vigour of its passage across the strings – but so does the nature of the tone of the note: it can be thin and sad, or fat and confident, or shouting and uproarious. The fingers on the left hand, moreover, by a gentle shaking movement of the wrist, can impart a vibrato to the note – which is really a small variation in frequency, but which can come across as tension, or breadth, or satisfaction. And this is not all that can be done with one single note! The bowing, or reversal of movement of the bow across the strings, can impart a different emphasis to the note. It can start strong, and back off in intensity, or start sweet and gain in strength (can’t do that on a piano!). Bowing is also a key to phrasing – linking the notes together so that you hear them as a group, or picking them out individually. The shape you give to phrases is a key element in musicality. You can also change the length each note lasts: legato would be linking them together (one continuous movement of the bow); bowing each one separates them, while playing staccato is short (bouncing the bow), and pizzicato is shorter still. There is too a delicate movement called a portamento, where the actual pitch of the note is slurred going from one to the other…… Is that enough?
Perlman uses all these possibilities, and even more, with astounding mastery. The Concerto is divided into three movements – Fast and Passionate, Slow and lyrical, then a scampering last movement which has a funny little introductory passage like an announcer saying his brilliant pupil is now going to show off his paces. Towards the end of the first movement, there is an extended cadenza (solo bit for the violin) where different patterns in the lower range go leaping up to a high note – each high note is different, until the last one is so high, but full and glorious in tone…. and then later the orchestra and soloist play a series of glittering phrases where the soloist accelerates as he goes up (or comes down) – and would you believe it, the orchestra is right there with him, what excitement! The theme of the slow movement is most beautifully stated by the violin, but when Perlman returns to the theme a bit later, higher up, what unbelievable sweetness! If you’re following it with him, don’t be surprised if tears come to your eyes….. come to think of it, the “announcer” before the third movement is probably saying OK pull yourselves together, we are now going to have a little romp. Which they do – the skittish phrases from the violin being beautifully echoed by the orchestra, leading to a memorable and glorious peak at the end.
Surprisingly enough for the fine quality of the recording, this is a live concert performance. We are lucky it was captured, because this level of virtuosity and understanding between soloist and orchestra is not so common.