MENDELSSOHN Violin Concerto. Symphony No 5
What kind of a violinist was Ferdinand David, for (and with) whom Mendelssohn composed his Violin Concerto? At a time when the late quartets of Beethoven were hardly known outside Vienna, he introduced them to enthusiastic audiences across Germany. At the same time, brilliance was the quality requested by David in the solo writing of his friend’s concerto; having already composed one himself, he knew how it could be achieved without recourse to virtuoso tropes and clichés.
Isabelle Faust is a musician in David’s line. Reserving portamento and vibrato for the lovely second theme, she brings out the anxious, hunted vulnerability of the concerto’s opening (a mode of expression Mendelssohn returned to all his life, until the F minor String Quartet). Its E minor‑ness registers the more strongly at period pitch, a semitone down, and is stressed by Pablo Heras-Casado from the outset, bringing out the clarinet’s third which is the weakest, most unstable element of the opening chord.
Like Christian Tetzlaff, Faust drives through the neo-Bachian arpeggios of the cadenza, as marked; her playing throughout is remarkable not only for the expected attributes of fidelity and accuracy but for the tough, wild and impassioned qualities she restores to a piece which easily falls prone to white-dress, sugar-and-spice performances. Without tearing up the rulebook, she has thought afresh about some phrase shapes in the closing stages of the first movement. Some listeners may find unsettling her pure tone in the Andante’s opening theme when coupled with sliding between each note. It’s of a piece with the fierce intrusion of trumpet and drums before very long; like the F minor Quartet, this performance of the concerto never sits back. Even the finale’s high spirits are tempered – or further raised – by a spirit of challenge and gamesmanship (beyond mere playfulness) between soloist and orchestra: like the relationship between Theseus and Hippolyta, it could go very wrong very quickly.
Such audacity courses through both overture and symphony. The battleground of the Reformation’s opening Allegro is staked out by Heras-Casado with fire, as Mendelssohn demands, but also fury, in some aggressively clipped tutti chords. At an almost identical tempo, he is more restrained than Mitropoulos (4/56, downloadable from Urania) or Toscanini in the application of rubato, but otherwise their fiercely rhetorical conceptions of the Andante bear close comparison down the decades. As Mitropoulos did, John Eliot Gardiner hastens on in the movement’s central section, as if conducting a cantata aria, while drawing from the LSO strings a tenderness that eludes the Freiburg ensemble. And for all the incidental beauties of their solo winds, I would have welcomed the fitting majesty that Gardiner brings to the symphony’s climactic assertion of ‘Ein feste Burg’. The disc will rightly attract attention for Faust; but anyone collecting Heras-Casado’s cycle of Mendelssohn will snap this up and wait eagerly for the final instalment.