Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

A Tale of Two Great Composers at the NCH

Legendary Leipzig orchestra to play Mendelssohn and Mussorgsky

The National Concert Hall is opening its new season of symphony orchestra visits on the first Sunday in September with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra playing music by Mendelssohn to celebrate the 200th anniversary of his birth. There are also two works by Mussorgsky, a composer as different from Mendelssohn as it is possible to be.

Felix Mendelssohn was a child prodigy and a musical giant of the 19th Century. His entry in the 1910 edition of Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians was a massive 66 pages, with an additional note on the Mendelssohn scholarship and a further entry about him as conductor of the Gewandhaus. This is to be compared with eight pages for Johannes Brahms. The weight of appreciation is largely reversed today. Both were born in Hamburg -- Mendelssohn to a Jewish father who converted to Christianity, while Brahms was thought to have had Jewish relations.

Mendelssohn took to performance and composition early, making a concert debut at the piano at the age of nine, having a psalm setting performed in Berlin when he was 10 and completing a comic opera at the age of 14. He was only 17 when the overture to his fresh and lyrical incidental music to Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream was composed. The work, which opens next Saturday's concert in the National Concert Hall, the Hebrides Overture, better known as Fingal's Cave, was composed after a Scottish visit which also inspired his Third, or Scottish, Symphony.

The easy and delightful lyricism of his later works made him an attractive entertainer and guest, and he was a favourite, for a time, of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, her consort. When Mendelssohn died at the end of a short life in 1847, at the age of 39, the queen wrote in her diary of her genuine distress at the loss of "the greatest musical genius since Mozart, and the most amiable man".

The other work chosen by Mendelssohn for the bi-centenary concert is his First Piano Concerto, also composed early in his career and reflecting his abilities at the keyboard, evident from early childhood. His sparkling ability and charm and his musical output made him an obvious contender for the role of conductor of the Gewandhaus Concerts in Leipzig, part of the musical heritage that made that city the leading musical capital of Germany for many year.

In a long line of conductors, from Johann Friedrich Doles, the first conductor, in 1745, and followed by the more famous Johann Adam Hiller, who presided for 22 years, Mendelssohn's name was probably the most famous up to the end of the 19th century. The tradition of great conductors went on in the 20th century, with Wilhelm Furtwängler, Bruno Walter and Kurt Masur all directing.

The evolution of the Gewandhaus Orchestra was a slow process. The name described concerts, all of which were performed in the Leipzig Gewandhaus, or armoury, during the first half of the 18th Century, when Johannes Bach was Cantor of the Thomasschule, an even more important contributor to the musical fame of Leipzig. There were 16 players. The Seven Years' War interrupted the work of the musicians and when they resumed, under Hiller's baton, they had grown in number to 30.

It performed all of Beethoven's symphonies during the composer's lifetime; in later years the orchestra also presented the world's first complete Bruckner cycle and the first Shostakovich cycle during the 1970s.

Its multiple functions as a concert orchestra, an opera orchestra at the Leipzig Opera, and a chamber orchestra which performs cantatas with the world-famous St Thomas Boys Choir at St Thomas's Church puts it directly in line with Leipzig's earlier leadership of music in Germany.

The inclusion of the music of Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) reflects the wide range of its repertoire. Mussorgsky was born 30 years later than Mendelssohn but lived only a few years longer. His background was rather different, though there was sufficient family money initially for him not to struggle.

Mussorgsky was drawn to church music while serving in a military academy. This led on to service with a famous Russian regiment in which he entertained fellow soldiers with his piano playing but he drank heavily.

He worked with other composers, had genuine talent and was in part responsible for the move in Russia to establish a national music free of German and Italian influences. A major musical contribution to this was his opera, Boris Godunov, based on Pushkin.

His family lost their wealth as a result of the freeing of the serfs. Mussorgsky took increasingly to drink, was helped financially by other composers and friends to complete two further operas but his health and sanity failed and he died in a military hospital. Next Sunday's concert includes his two most popular orchestral pieces -- Night on a Bald Mountain and Pictures at an Exhibition.

Saleem Abboud Ashkar performs Mendelssohn's First Piano Concerto under the orchestra's conductor Riccardo Chailly who is Gewandhauskapellmeister and responsible for giving this ancient musical institution a new lease of life. Chailly also directs the Leipzig Opera. Ashkar is an Israeli Palestinian; the pianist was born in Nazareth and discovered at the age of 17 by the renowned conductor Zubin Metha.