Portland Baroque Orchestra review: Prodigal sounds

Historically informed orchestra reaches forward into the Classical and Romantic eras with abundant skill but sometimes insufficient forces


Who is the greatest classical music prodigy of all time?

If you answered Mozart, you’re not alone. You also probably didn’t attend the Portland Baroque Orchestra’s latest concert.

Because if you had, you might agree with the PBO’s leader, baroque violin superstar Monica Huggett, that the man who in his childhood was called “the second Mozart” was in fact greater than the first. That man? Felix Mendelssohn, born in 1809, 18 years after Mozart’s death.

PBO played Mozart and Mendelssohn. Photo: Jonathan Ley.

PBO played Mozart and Mendelssohn. Photo: Jonathan Ley.

No one — certainly not Ms. Huggett — would argue that Mendelssohn was a greater composer than Mozart. But as a child and teenager, Mendelssohn wrote music far beyond what Mozart composed at the same age. Is there anything in Mozart’s oeuvre to compare with Mendelssohn’s Octet in E-flat major, composed at the age of 16, or the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, written when Mendelssohn was 17? If you add the three Mendelssohn pieces played by the PBO, the case strengthens, for the young prodigy wrote them all between the ages of 12 and 14.

In fact Mendelssohn completed 12 string symphonies, in three to five movements, at that age, started a 13th, and for good measure also wrote a nifty violin concerto for string orchestra, running about 20 minutes. The PBO played one of the 12 (the 6th), the one-movement 13th, and the concerto in the first half of their “Mendelssohn & Mozart” program, October 14-16.

The 13th, known as the Sinfoniesatz (symphony movement) proved a worthy seven-minute concert opener. Starting slowly, it soon plunges into a very accomplished fugue, played at speed. The PBO players, whose normal baroque repertoire is full of fugues, obviously enjoyed themselves and tossed it off easily.

The 12-year-old Felix Mendelssohn: prodigy of prodigies.

The 12-year-old Felix Mendelssohn: prodigy of prodigies.

Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64, written in 1845, when Mendelssohn was 36, has been for more than 150 years a staple for solo violinists. It was the famous violinist Yehudi Menuhin who “discovered” Mendelssohn’s far less familiar Violin Concerto in D, written in 1822 or 1823, and performed it in Carnegie Hall in 1952, conducting what he called a “string band” from the concertmaster’s chair. Although Menuhin performed it many times thereafter and recorded it thrice, he never succeeded in bringing it into the standard repertory.

Monica Huggett played this concerto, as Menuhin had, conducting from the first violin chair. It’s not clear how many players Menuhin had for his orchestra, but Ms. Huggett’s “string band” of 13 players seemed insufficient for the piece. Although Ms. Huggett was able to play the most evanescent of pianissimos against this accompaniment, and although the players were more than sufficient in their playing, there was a chamber music feeling about the piece that didn’t seem quite right. One longed for a “string band” of 25. Ms. Huggett’s three shortish cadenzas, however, two in the second movement and one in the third, were “chamber music” perfect.

The String Symphony No. 6, however, likewise played by 14 players, with Ms. Huggett in the concertmaster’s seat, seemed perfectly scored for the available personnel. This piece, running a brisk 13 minutes, features a closing prestissimo third movement that is one of the highlights of Mendelssohn’s 12-symphony set. Especially intriguing is the fact that although zooming along at a frantic pace, brilliantly sustained by the PBO, it stops dead twice before resuming its sprint. It proved a lively first-half closer.

Then it was time for Mozart. And not Mozart the child prodigy, endlessly trotted around Europe well into his late adolescence by his father Leopold, who shamelessly presented his son as a sort of side-show curiosity and cash cow, but rather Mozart the “mature” composer of 32. His Symphony No. 40 in G Minor is one of his most recorded works, often grouped with the 39th and 41st (“Jupiter”), all of which he wrote in a mere ten weeks in 1788. While the 39th lives in its day with respect to style and idiom, and the 41st brilliantly recapitulates Mozart’s past achievements, the 40th points ahead, beyond the great operas, toward the 19th century. At only 27 minutes in four movements, it is a very large piece, with large gestures, even monumental ones.

And here the PBO’s reach, to some degree, outspanned its grasp. With just 22 players on the stage, Mozart’s big symphony was simply not big enough. Although 22 is a large number for the PBO, and although Mozart did not specify a number of players in his score and we have no details on how many played the piece in its original performances, this version of the 40th sounded like a chamber music version of an orchestral work. If one would not welcome Haydn’s London symphonies or Beethoven’s third symphony performed by a “band” of just 22 players, however skillful, the same applies to the latest of Mozart’s symphonies. That said, Ms. Huggett and the PBO gave a lively and sensitive and reading of one of Mozart’s great symphonies, with especially good contributions by the flautist and the first-chair bassoonist.

Still, if the point of the programming was to show where the young Mendelssohn was coming from — where he got his ideas and style — the PBO might more appropriately have chosen a true chamber work by Mozart. Ms. Huggett has recorded the String Quartet No. 2 and the String Quintets Nos. 1 and 2 with her group Hausmusik. Any of these would have served the purpose admirably.

Recommended recordings

  • Mendelssohn String Symphony No. 13: Amsterdam Sinfonietta, Lev Markiz conducting (BIS label); Hanover Band, Roy Goodman conducting (RCA Red Label); Ensemble Allegria (YouTube).
  • Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in D Minor: Josef Suk with Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Karel Ancerl conducting (Supraphon label); Daniel Hope with Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Thomas Hengelbrock conducting (Deutsche Grammophon).
  • Mendelssohn String Symphony No. 6: English String Orchestra, William Boughton conducting (Nimbus).
  • Mozart Symphony No. 40: Les Musiciens du Louvre, Mark Minkowski conducting (Archiv); Manchester Camerata, Douglas Boyd conducting (Avie); Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Sir Charles Mackerras conducting (Linn); Cleveland Orchestra, George Szell conducting (Sony); Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Leopold Hager conducting (Vox Turnabout).

Next: Portland Baroque Orchestra performs “Breathtaking – A Voice and Cornetto Entwined,” a co-production of PBO and Pacific MusicWorks, October 28 & 29, 7:30 PM at Portland’s First Baptist Church.

Terry Ross is free-lance reviewer. He can be reached at classicalclub@comcast.net.

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