Underrated: The boy wonder: The case for Mendelssohn

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The Independent Culture
Since the great Mozart bicentenary binge in 1991, certain ideas about Mozart have been virtually set in stone. He is now the official World's Greatest Composer - though it seems it's only in the last 20 or 30 years that he has wrested that title from Beethoven. He has also come to represent the ideal boy genius: born a fully-rounded artist, his subsequent course less one of development than of enrichment.

But if Mozart had died on his 18th birthday, how would he be remembered? What enduring work is there among that frightening quantity of super-accomplished juvenilia - Exultate Jubilate, the 'Little' G minor symphony? Put those beside the best of the teenage Mendelssohn and the contrast is startling: from Mendelssohn we have the Octet (16), the Midsummer Night's Dream overture (17) and a fair amount of less well- known but hardly less rewarding music. Move the cut-off point forward just a few months and you have the A minor String Quartet. This is 1827, the year of Beethoven's death, when his 'late' style was a hermetically sealed world to most musicians; and yet here is an 18- year old composer, understanding those last quartets, digesting their influence and producing something powerfully original in response.

This much may be acknowledged from time to time. But with it goes the usual caveat: that Mendelssohn didn't develop, or even enrich - that he un-matured. There is a popular view of what happened: the brilliant young German-Jewish romantic became a Biedermeier bourgeois. Think of those sickly Songs without Words, Elijah, or that overweight monstrosity Lobgesang (Hymn of Praise), a kind of Victorian town hall in music. Lobgesang may be irredeemable, but playing through the Songs without Words recently, I was surprised at how repeatable some of them turn out to be - a lot depends on how they are approached.

In his recent Gramophone Award-winning Elijah (or rather Elias - with a German text) the conductor Kurt Masur underlines that point. Associations with the worst sides of the English choral tradition are briskly dispelled by a performance that puts the work in its German - specifically Leipzig - context. The composer who at 20 took on the massed prejudices of a musical world and proved that Bach's then- unknown St Matthew Passion was a vital, relevant work emerges afresh in page after page of the Masur Elias. One begins to see how important Mendelssohn's achievements must have been for a history- conscious giant like Brahms. And yet the energy behind it refutes any charge of merely clever archaism - the kind of thing Wagner derided as 'complex artificialities'.

And here we come to one of the central issues. As Nikolaus Harnoncourt recently remarked, if it is possible to 'mutilate' a reputation, Wagner did it to Mendelssohn's. Like many revolutionaries, Wagner needed a whipping-boy, and he found a perfect target in Mendelssohn: the classicist, the absolute musician, the Jew. The reverberations of that attack can still be felt today, in the way we perform the music. That fine musicians can be so condescending about the Violin Concerto (the habitual record coupling with the likeable but lightweight Bruch is frankly insulting) increasingly astonishes me. And hearing the penetrating, relatively sugar-free performance of the late F minor Quartet recently was a revelation for me - as the saying goes, I never knew there was so much in it. Judging from reviews, Harnoncourt's recording of the Scottish Symphony had a similar effect for many. So perhaps things are changing; the signs are encouraging. A Mendelssohn revival might do more than widen the repertoire. It could give Germany back a vital link in its musical history, and introduce us to a composer whom, perhaps, we never really knew.