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 Recording of the Week  Felix Mendelssohn

As we enter the penultimate month of 2009 I realise that I have one major composer anniversary yet to cover this year – that of the bicentenary of the birth of Felix Mendelssohn (1809–47). Mendelssohn was a child prodigy. He gave piano and organ concerts from a very early age and was also a prolific composer. Between the ages of 12 and 14 he wrote his twelve string symphonies, and was only 15 when he wrote his first full symphony (no. 1 in C minor, Op. 11). However, the first evidence of the real extent of his genius came the following year when he wrote his famous Octet and followed this up the year later with his Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture. Arguably these two works show far more individuality and greatness than anything Mozart produced when he was a similar age.

Felix Mendelssohn
Felix Mendelssohn

It seems that after these early successes Mendelssohn’s compositional style never really developed as one would have expected and he become known as quite a conservative composer, particular when compared to his contemporaries like Berlioz and Liszt. While this no doubt helped make him both popular and successful during his lifetime it was also probably one of the reasons why he fell out of favour later in the nineteenth century where he remained for a long time.

Although Mendelssohn wrote in a variety of forms and in a number of different genres I would say the two things that I most admire and love about his music are his chamber music and his remarkable scherzos. His String Quartets, String Quintets, Piano Trios and String Octet are some of his finest works and display a composer in complete mastery of the genre. They also contain more emotional intensity than some of his other works (a criticism often directed at Mendelssohn), particularly the last String Quartet (No. 6 in F minor, Op. 80) which was written after the death of his sister Fanny. Mendelssohn’s scherzos are something unique in the history of music. They demonstrate a fairy-like touch – full of imagination and fleetness of foot. Best known are those from the Octet and the Midsummer Night's Dream incidental music (written in 1842, some sixteen years after the Overture), but a similar compositional style is found in some of his last movements as well – notably the ‘Italian’ Symphony and the Violin Concerto.

There is no shortage of good Mendelssohn recordings to choose from and you can explore them all from our Mendelssohn page here, but to get you started here are the building a library recommendations for the three main works mentioned above.

BBC Radio 3 Building a Library top Recommendations

Mendelssohn - Octet

(coupled with the Piano Sextet)

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC

Mendelssohn - A Midsummer Night's Dream

Kathleen Battle, Frederica von Stade, Judi Dench, Tanglewood Festival Chorus, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Seiji Ozawa

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC