July 18, 2011
If anyone could give child prodigy Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart a run for his money, it was child prodigy Felix Mendelssohn.
His octet in E-flat Major, originally composed when Medelssohn was just 16 years old, is a technically stunning piece. It's also one Mendelssohn seriously revised, cutting and adding lengthy portions, departing significantly from the original 1825 composition. But listeners had a rare opportunity to hear the original, unedited version Sunday at All Saints Church in Carmel, led by Bach Festival concertmaster Peter Hanson, who was commissioned by the Library of Congress to arrange and record the original version, what Hanson simply calls "vintage Mendelssohn."
There's a dramatic arc to the piece, which layers theme upon theme in a series of fugues, at times times evocative enough that it produces soundtrack-quality emotional tugs. With a smattering of trills and tremolos throughout, there's a consistently eerie underbelly to each of the four movements, even as arpeggios and scales cheerily peak and descend, repeating with variations in the textures below the melody.
There's a certain fleetingness to the fluttering arpeggios and lightning-quick pizzacati, lending the piece a magical quality, which is exactly what Mendelssohn was going for, according to an excerpt from his letters included in the program notes: "Everything new and strange, and at the same time most insinuating and pleasing, one feels so near the world of spirits, carried away in the air, half inclined to snatch up a broomstick and follow the aerial procession." There's also some comedy here, a sense of incompleteness that eggs on the listener to give up on a theme that continuously interrupts itself and feels like it may never climax.
Also from the dead-on program notes, written by cellist Allen Whear: "[The octet was] an achievement considered miraculous, not just because of its technical precocity, but because of the fully formed, individual style it announced to the world."
Besides his musical skill, Mendelssohn had another one-up on Mozart, Hanson said. Goethe met both musicians, and took a liking to young Felix, but apparently found Wolfgang to be irritating and rude, according to Gordon's encyclopedic knowledge of music trivia.
This is chamber music as it should be: intimate church venue, cozy shoulder-to-shoulder seating, and candlelit stage backed by magnificent stained glass. If you're clamoring for more of this, the secret's out: Even if concerts at the Mission are booked up, you can still bring along a folding chair and squeeze in in the courtyard.
In this crowded audience was a 86-year-old Thomas Leo (pictured above, in conversation with Peter Hanson), a direct descendant of Felix Mendelssohn. Leo and his wife are in the process of moving from Los Gatos to Pebble Beach, a long way from Leo's childhood home; he was born in Germany in 1935 and fled with his family first to Venezuela before coming to the U.S.
Check back for continued coverage of the Bach Festival in Carmel. Visit www.bachfestival.org for concert and event details.