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Ana-Marija Markovina: Mendelssohn – Towards the Restoration of Genius

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Croatian classical pianist Ana-Marija Markovina

Ana-Marija Markovina: Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy – Complete Works for Piano [Solo]

Few composers – artistic geniuses at that – have had their entire careers disparaged, their reputation for pure genius never to be restored, not in their lifetimes; not ever – like Felix Mendelssohn. The opera composer and contemporary of Mendelssohn – Giacomo Meyerbeer – came a close second, and a musician as compelling as Gustav Mahler was also similarly denigrated for years, until his friend Bruno Walter worked tirelessly to restore his reputation. The bitter anti-Semitism that plagued Germany and was borne on the wings of Nazism in the early 20th century was responsible for all the negativity surrounding all three men. But it may easily be stated – nay proven – that the harshest, seemingly most subjective judgments were reserved for Mendelssohn.

Portrait of Mendelssohn by the German painter Eduard Magnus, 1846
Portrait of Mendelssohn by the German painter Eduard Magnus, 1846 [public domain]

For instance Hans von Bulow, one of the great conductors of Romantic era Germany and a champion of the work of Johannes Brahms and Richard Wagner is known to have said of Mendelssohn that began as a genius and ended as a talent. This is, perhaps the mildest slights that Mendelssohn must have suffered. Wagner went even further. The revolutionary creator of opera, in a bitter diatribe accused Mendelssohn [and, more so, Giacomo Meyerbeer] of infecting German music with “Jewish” motifs. For someone of Wagner’s intelligence [stature be damned] this is the least-credible assessment of Mendelssohn’s music. How clearly hateful [and misguided] Wagner was is supported by the fact that both Mendelssohn and Wagner shared a great admiration for Goethe, [the latter] who was even known to have become a “close friend” of Mendelssohn in 1821, after the then 12 year-old genius composed the overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, gaining international recognition in the process.

Wagner’s reaction to Mendelssohn was, in all probability one part pure hatred of the Jews and two parts uncontrolled jealousy. Others in 19th century Germany were also so inclined. According to Alex Ross [in his remarkable book Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music] notes that the composer Johann Christian Lobe became so bitter about this blind hatred that he summarised, in an essay entitled “Jewishness in Music”, dripping with uncontrollable sardonicism that read thus: “I Hate the Jews, I hate and envy Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer; I therefore recommend that all Jews be annihilated.” The extent of the irrationality of 19th century anti-Semitic Germany was legendary. The book that Larry Todd edited and had published in 1991, perhaps the most authoritative on the composer, his times and his work, begins with an essay by Leon Botstein. In it very second paragraph the author dissects Wagner’s “contemptuous view of Mendelssohn”:

Mendelsshon and his sister Fanny - From a painting by R. Poetzelberger
Mendelsshon and his sister Fanny – From a painting by R. Poetzelberger

“[In Wagner’s essay, “Judaism and Music”]…The success of the contemptuous Wagnerian view of Mendelssohn, the man and his music, and its social cultural influence was profound. [Note: this kind of hatred “began in earnest in 1850.] Wagner’s aesthetics were framed in explicit opposition to Mendelssohn. Wagner even succeeded in obscuring the extent to which he, as a composer, was indebted to Mendelssohn’s musical work.”  Wagner was known to be obsessed with Mendelssohn. Outwardly, he seemed to pour scorn on the “Jewish excitability” in Mendelssohn’s expressiveness. But inwardly – when left alone in his salon and even in dreams [as Cosima Liszt records] Mendelssohn was “the authority and the overt object of envy, with whom intimacy was sought. Help with a dangerous task [i.e., composition] was not forthcoming. [In his dream] Wagner belies both his own fear of failure and his perception of Mendelssohn beyond his “Jewishness”, as an authority-figure known for excellence… even going as far as to imagine the composer like that of a quintessential German military hero.

The rise of rampant anti-Semitism in Germany dates back to The Reformation led by Martin Luther whose brimstone and fire went far beyond the pulpit and into his vitriolic pamphlet of 1543, On The Jews and Their Lies, in which he called for burning of synagogues and the razing of Jewish homes. Wagner’s rise to fame [at Mendelssohn’s expense] was rooted in this kind of tradition together with an overarching anti-elite political rhetoric that seemed to obscure aesthetic norms, which lasted throughout the middle- to late-19th century and all the way into the Third Reich. But the Fascist champions were not the only ones jack-booting themselves all over Mendelssohn and his art.

Tragically, it appears that Mendelssohn could not please the Left either – especially, contrarily, in Britain – where he was held in the highest esteem. It seemed that critics – clearly influenced by the socio-political rhetoric of the day – found it hard to penetrate Mendelssohn’s humanity, which anchored his aesthetic. The fact that “beauty” came easily to Mendelssohn became a flaw. The fact that he “worked at” and “refined” his work until it became gem-like was completely ignored. Clumsy attempts to reverse this perception by the Allies after the War didn’t help as they began almost every radio broadcast with, according to Alex Ross, “…having to perform at least one ‘verboten’ work on each program… [This] led to a stereotyped pattern of starting orchestral concerts with a Mendelssohn overture…”

If Mendelssohn’s music was attacked by the Right and the Left, perceived as too easily beautiful, or typecast as a “Jewish” musician what chance could he have stood against the rising tide of hatred combined with music criticism that seemed to lack depth and credibility? Like Mahler much later Mendelssohn needed – and still needs – champions of his extraordinarily beautiful music; champions like Bruno Walter, who [first] made marvelous recordings of Mahler’s mighty symphonic works and helped break down the walls that others had built to unfairly imprison Mahler’s artistry. Mendelssohn had Richard Strauss, who “could not comprehend the banning of [Felix] Mendelssohn.” But it would take much more than merely “speaking up for” Mendelssohn to draw attention to the majesty of his music – whether early or late. It would take someone who understood his virtuosity as a pianist and a violinist to unpack the intricacies of the winding and leaping, the frolicking and rising and falling of his phraseology; his magical poetics and the innate naturalness and humanity of Mendelssohn’s music.

Felix Mendelsshon Bartholdy Complete Works for Solo Piano by Anna-Marija Markovina
Felix Mendelsshon Bartholdy Complete Works for Solo Piano by Anna-Marija Markovina

While many have done so in fits and starts, the pianist Roberto Prosseda was one of the first to dig deep. His epic recording of Mendelssohn’s complete piano music was the stuff of legend – until that is the arrival of this monumental 12-CD box set Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy: Complete Works for Solo Piano [Hänssler Classic PH18043] by the great pianist and pedagogue Ana-Marija Markovina. Miss Markovina makes it clear, at the very outset in her wonderfully detailed booklet notes, that she owes much to Mr Prosseda, who shared much with her. Miss Markovina goes much further to say: “His generous help gave me valuable insights. His work on the publication of the early [Mendelssohn] sonatas, fugues, studies and other piano pieces has underpinned the completeness of the present complete recording; at the very beginning Roberto Prosseda generously placed all his scores at my disposal,” Miss Markovina says. These [scores] became the starting point of Miss Markovina’s epic Mendelssohnian odyssey.

However being the quintessentially curious artist and meticulous pedagogue didn’t just mean that she pored over the scored and dived deep into Mendelssohn’s works, penetrating the skin and unpacking of their magical beauty, she also arrived at what can easily be seen as a perfect way to trace the maturation of Mendelssohn’s genius by arranging and performing these works for solo piano in chronological order beginning with works from 1820, when Mendelssohn was just 11 years old. Secondly, Miss Markovina has performed everything Mendelssohn wrote and published based on “a system of compilation applied by Dr Ralf Wehner of the Saxony Academy of Sciences and Humanities in Leipzig: the Mendelssohn-Werkverzeichnis [MWV catalogue for Mendelssohn’s works].”

And what does she achieve just by this arrangement of the works? This not only emphatically shows astronomical growth as a composer, but from the various fragments that became larger compositions we glean a Mendelssohnian penchant not simply for refining compositions, but working at them with a jeweler’s precision craftsmanship, chipping and cutting, and polishing each piece until its full gem-like brilliance shines through. And so from the Klavierstueck B minor/D minor [MWV U 7], a short piece we are taken at once to another world, unique to Mendelssohn. In three minutes all is revealed: It is at once a world full of glinting lights, mysterious depths, expectations, frustrations, hopes and doubts; humanity viewed in shattered shadows glimpsed by moonlight in a forest. Meanwhile in the sheer depth of characterisation and the exceptional range and refinement of its pianism, how Miss Markovina here imparts a power and tragic stature to this little piece is absolutely astounding.

While every work – however short a fragment it is – and that too, on each of the 12 CDs, is a study in Mendelssohn’s genius, it is the attention that he pays to artistic detail, the element of surprise that makes the notes fly off the staved paper and pirouette in the air of the room is magical. Most of all it is the artistic tribute to humanity that marks Mendelssohn’s work. It appears as if the composer is propelled by imagery and the power of the sublime imagination – something that would certainly have pleased even the most discerning 3rd century Greek critic Cassius Longinus. There is the parallel phenomenon of Miss Markovina’s own inspired reading of everything she encounters – even a tiny 0’37 Allegro con moto A minor, Fragment from 1825 on CD 4. The quality of her playing on this little shard of beauty is altogether exceptional.

Ana-Marija Markovina takes nothing for granted in music. Nor should you in listening to her. If you know how your Bach ‘goes’, if you know how your Chopin ‘goes’ or how anyone else ‘goes’ for that matter then this set might not be for you. Not that she does anything wildly idiosyncratic, let alone iconoclastic, a la Glenn Gould. At the same time she is almost plainly prophetic in terms of unveiling Mendelssohn’s poetics, opening our minds to the enticing opportunity to discover anew Mendelssohn – a composer and piano virtuoso of considerable genius. Everywhere revelations abound. We find this in the sinewy beauty and virtuosity of [the performance] of the A minor Fragment mentioned above, for instance. Elsewhere we find that Miss Markovina captures Mendelssohn’s genius for mood and atmosphere on one of his most famous pieces – the Fugue E minor op 35 no 1[b] [MWV U 66] of June 1827. Here, we also become aware of Miss Markovina’s ability to coordinate colour and structure to a rare degree, and so to reveal the composer’s exceptional versatility and resourcefulness. Clearly this reveals near-volcanic genius of Mendelssohn, who just two years before composed one of the greatest ever chamber work for strings – his String Octet in A minor, Op. 13 [which was followed by the String Octet in Eb major Op.20].

In short order Miss Markovina reveals right out of the gate on CD 7 Mendelssohn’s Andante B major – Allegro di molto B minor [Rondo brilliant] [MWV U 87] of 1831. This is a piece, quite literally with a champagne fizz; it is the disc’s apogee performed by the pianist with apparently effortless distinction between the many filigree lines and its aristocratic elegance. This is also a clear sign that Mendelssohn was never afraid to reveal himself, as being utterly comfortable in the skin to which he was born, unafraid, as it were, to reveal his humanity as if in a prismatic vision of himself. Mendelssohn played the piano, as Ferdinand Hiller once said, “…as a lark soars.” And by the time we get to Miss Markovina’s excursions from CD 8 we begin to encounter the first of the six published books of composer’s iconic Lied ohne Worte [Songs without Words] On this disc, of course there is a mighty precursor to soaring pianistic larks and this flight begins with Miss Markovina’s unraveling of the Etude F minor op 104/2 No. 2 [MWV U 100], which is both magical and mystical. It sets the tone for the Lied ohne Worte to follow.

Felix Mendelsshon Bartholdy Complete Works for Solo Piano by Anna-Marija Markovina
Felix Mendelsshon Bartholdy Complete Works for Solo Piano by Anna-Marija Markovina

Throughout the rest of the discs we encounter Mendelssohn’s Lied ohne Worte, forty-six miniatures composed from 1830 onwards and published in six cycles. These are also interspersed with other forms of composition – sonatas, caprices and several remarkable Kinderstueck – sketches and musical characterisations of loved ones and those Mendelssohn admires – from his wife Elise Cornelia Benecke to Clara Schumann, and his cousin Cécile. But from CD 8 to 11 these pieces – their fragments and completed ones – are the featured pieces. On disc 8 itself we encounter [amid Lied ohne Worte E flat major op 85 No 3 [MWV U 111] broad hints of what would become the Wedding March from Mendelssohn’s music for Midsummer’s Night’s Dream. Combining surface virtuosity with a lyrical sense of line, they are exquisitely constructed and intimate little pieces.

It is impossible not to dazzled by the sheer variety of colour and mood contained in these Lied ohne Worte what with the [Venetianisches Gondolelleid] F sharp minor op 30 No 6, for instance, or the utterly elemental cascading of the Lied ohne Worte C major op 67 No 4 [Spinnerlied]. Throughout Miss Markovina’s bravura is combined with an acute sensitivity over matters of pacing and of light and shade. This latter characteristic in Miss Markovina serves her to great effect on the Variations Sérieuses [MWV U 156]. Within the set of 34 Variations the performance here combines an overall fleetness of tempo and touch there are ‘interludes’ of lush intimacy in which sentimentality is kept firmly at bay. From these Variations to Mendelssohn’s incidental music for Shakespeare’s Midsummer’s Night Dream [music that continues to be held in the public’s affection] one can draw a not so deviating line. The incidental music, composed in 1843, is rarely performed complete, which was a pity as Robert Schumann rightly suggested that it glows with “the bloom of youth”

Innovatively constructed from motifs heard in the majestic Overture – thus for example, the opening chords are used as a basis for entry of Oberon and Titania in the finale – it’s a wonderfully evocative series of musical tableaux. Miss Markovina breathes elemental and theatrical fire and drama into this music as well as tenderness. She regularly wrong-foots clichéd expectations – as great performances are apt to do – with delicate and finely tapered phrases that bring expressive eloquence to Mendelssohn’s motifs. In the end she plays this oh-so-familiar music with the poise, delicacy and the unfailing newness that it deserves. The rest of this extraordinarily studied and enterprising programme on this monumental box set is perfectly matched in performance to Mendelssohn’s real genius for composition and the near-obsessive artistic perfection that drove him throughout his short life.

Throughout Miss Markovina brings effortless Mendelssohnian urbanity and lyricism to all the items included here, which are seductive as they are persuasive, and an object lesson of style. From the [various] Kinderstueck and the Charakterstuek Fugue [Ernst und mit steigender Lebhafttigkeit A major op 7 No 5, for instance each work is played with buoyant aristocratic grace and psychological ambiguity. And like Mendelssohn himself, Miss Markovina is [rightly] almost insolently effortless, bringing debonair virtuosity, studied grace and swagger – especially when it comes to the piano music distillations from Mendelssohn’s orchestral work for Midsummer Night’s Dream.

There comes an especially important lesson in this incidental music once Miss Markovina’s solo piano versions of this music is listened to – say – put on the Philharmonia Orchestra & Chorus version conducted by Otto Klemperer. And that less that Miss Markovina teaches us is this: Mendelssohn was an uncommonly great orchestrator – something that even the great Chopin was not. And to think that unnecessarily jaded and jealous composers such as Wagner and critics such as George Bernard Shaw were unable to grasp is pitiable.

Clearly Ana-Marija Markovina’s Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy: Complete Works for Solo Piano will go a long way in revising the largely anti-Semitic view of Mendelssohn, one that deprived him of his true standing in 19th century music. The ravishingly masterful playing throughout this box set certainly stands shoulder-to-shoulder with The Cleveland Quartet’s touchingly emotional account of Mendelssohn’s String Octet, Jascha Heifetz’s account of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor, which is in a class of its own, The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s masterful performance of Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah, with the great Bryn Terfel’s most powerful Elijah. And it certainly stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the wonderfully judged and sprung cycle of Felix Mendelssohn: Symphonies 1 – 5 by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe with the RAIS Kammerchor and featuring the luminous soprano Karina Gauvin – all directed by the great Yannick Nézet-Séguin. In sum Miss Markovina’s great effort amounts to a bigness that few pianists have achieved – including [rather ironically-speaking] the heroic Mr Prosseda.

Based in Milton, Ontario, Canada, Raul is a poet, musician and an accomplished critic whose profound analysis is reinforced by his deep understanding of music, technically as well as historically.

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