Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64 (original 1844 version) [25:48]
Octet for strings, Op 20 (original 1825 version) [33:54]
Chouchane Siranossian (violin)
Anima Eterna Brugge/Jakob Lehmann
rec. 2016/17, Concertgebouw, Bruges, Belgium
ALPHA 410 [59:46]
I have recently been listening (for comparison purposes with a future review in mind) to the decade or so old recording of Anima Eterna’s Beethoven symphony cycle under Immerseel, originally released on Zig Zag; recently repackaged and re-issued on sister label Alpha. It was always my favourite HIP set, for its unpretentiousness, its consistent clarity of direction and its excitement; for what I might characterise as ‘disciplined raw energy’. In recent times the group have been pre-occupied with finding ‘authenticity’ in more recent repertoire, Russian music, impressionism, even Carl Orff, so it’s fantastic to hear them again in the kind of music in which they first established themselves. All the qualities that are abundant in the Beethoven set are present on this Mendelssohn disc, most obviously in the concerto, thus reinforcing their unique ‘house style’. The recording sounds terrific, a bigger sound now than in the Beethoven, a reflection perhaps of a decade of technological refinement as well as the experience that accrues over time.
‘In Time’ (which could also be read as the French ‘intime’ the cryptic, introductory note tells us) marks the first page in a new chapter for the orchestra, ‘Anima Next Generation’ which their founder and director Jos van Immerseel describes in a characteristically warm and optimistic note. While Immerseel isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, the new project seems to be a kind of outreach, getting talented and established musicians from the younger generation involved with the AE brand of education which focuses on research, restoration and translating the results of such endeavours into performance. Hence of the two named principals here, Chouchane Siranossian (aged 33) is the soloist in the concerto and ‘leads’ in the Octet, while Jakob Lehmann (aged 26) conducts the former work and is ‘Violin II’ in the latter. It will surprise no-one that the Octet emerges as especially youthful and daring, while the tremendous live recording of the concerto also seems at times to ‘dance on a tightrope’.
There are good reasons for this. Consistent with the adventurous philosophy of this ensemble and the Alpha label there is another twist. To complete the singularity of an issue which pairs two of Mendelssohn’s most revered (and prolifically recorded) creations we get his original thoughts on both. While the differences in the two versions of the concerto are perhaps subtle, and are largely related to movement instructions and designations the Octet, especially in the first movement emerges as almost a different piece, with many bars of thrilling extra music. It has only been recorded once before, on Resonus Classics’ first ever release in 2011 as a standalone download (RES 10101) performed by the Eroica Quartet ‘and Friends’, so effectively this Alpha recording represents its first appearance on a commercially released CD.
To my shame the Resonus release passed me by at the time but I have got to know it in the course of writing this review. In terms of comparison I can report that both readings are magnificent, and rather different in tone, at least in the first two movements. Given the low price of the Resonus download, I would recommend that lovers of the piece should certainly consider acquiring both. The Eroica’s performance is presented in very fine, detailed sound, and while Mendelssohn’s wonderful music is exciting by any measure they perhaps seem a little self-conscious and tentative at the points (most of which are in the first movement) where the extra music replaces what one is expecting; ultimately of course, that could merely be in the mind of the listener whose cognitive processes may overlap with the performers’. The Eroica’s playing and projection certainly lacks nothing in warmth, love or commitment. Compared to Anima Eterna, I would say their pioneering interpretation emerges as a bit more ‘buttoned-up’. Chouchane Siranossian leads the Anima Eterna octet in a full-blooded, passionate reading of the first movement, one that seems thoroughly lived in. The Alpha documentation, alas, really doesn’t help in terms of providing details of the textual differences between the original and revised versions of either piece. Resonus, on the other hand, provide a superb analysis of the differences in a downloadable pdf that comes with the sound files. Indeed violinist Peter Hanson and cellist David Watkin made a ten-minute film about the original version as they prepared it for performance (Youtube). In it Watkin makes the point that as a teenager Mendelssohn would have been steeped in late-Romantic Beethovenian angst, but ironically it’s the new Anima Eterna disc that better conveys the testosterone-fuelled edginess of the writing to which Watkin alludes. The remaining players certainly take their cues from the tangible esprit de joie of Siranossian’s playing. On the other hand, it’s the older heads in the Eroica group that perhaps better convey the poetry of the slow movement, in a longer-breathed, more expansive reading. Honours are even in the last two movements which are more or less identical to the revision, save for the odd changes in phrasing and bowing indications in the third, while the finale is marked Molto allegro e vivace rather than the more familiar Presto. This perception is backed up by the identical playing times on the two recordings for both movements.
It is worth recalling that Goethe was entertained by both Mozart and Mendelssohn as 7 year old infants (audiences that were separated by roughly half a century}. The ageing poet reportedly told Carl Zelter, Mendelssohn’s teacher,that comparing the two at that age was similar to comparing the civilised, cultivated conversation of an adult with the babble of an infant. The great writer was impressed by Mendelssohn’s abilities as a sight-reader and in particular as an extemporizer, and it is the powerful, expressive, ‘stuff the conventions’ freedom in this 1825 version of the Octet that really strikes the listener. Notwithstanding the ‘gawkiness’ of some of the writing to which David Watkin alludes in the film, this reviewer ended up regretting that Mendelssohn grew up rapidly and ditched some of these wonderful ideas. Of course, one of the other stereotypes often applied to Mendelssohn compared to Mozart was that while the Salzburg master was still developing at his death Mendelssohn’s inspiration had somewhat plateaued much earlier in his career. The E minor Violin Concerto (from 1844) utterly belies this notion. Chouchane Siranossian’s comments in the leaflet are revealing, if all too brief. She describes revisiting the markings both Joachim and the Frenchman Ferdinand David made on their scores when they collaborated with the composer, and these have clearly influenced her interpretative decisions. While vibrato is largely excluded, it is the omnipresence of portamento that I suspect will most strike (and perhaps jolt) many listeners. However, the energy and fire which Siranossian breathes into this superb live reading will more than compensate. ‘Fire’ is certainly the appropriate simile, since the first movement in the original version is marked Allegro con fuoco rather than the Allegro molto appassionato it eventually became, a subtle but revealing distinction which emerges in a more nuanced, perhaps emotionally reticent account. She also abides by Joachim’s observations of the slow movement which she cites in her comments: “Anyone who feels its chaste allure will automatically prohibit himself (sic) from using excessive vibrato or mawkish slides from one note to another”. The finale emerges as rawer than one normally expects, and consequently gains in uninhibited excitement. The enthusiastic audience applause has been retained. It is fully merited.
Despite the fact that the concerto was written just three years before its composer’s untimely demise it is still self-evidently young man’s music and it is this quality that emerges most vividly in Chouchane Siranossian’s readings of both of these immortal works. These winning performances are invigorating and fresh- it’s Mendelssohn in the raw, as it were. While the orchestra is fastidiously driven by Lehmann in the concerto, some listeners might feel that Siranossian’s violin absorbs too much of the limelight in both of the pieces here, but to my ears the prominence of her playing in no way compromises one’s enjoyment of a splendid and revelatory disc.