I have included my own arrangement for violin and piano of three of Mendelssohn's glorious Lieder on this album, not least because the element of song also permeates the other works on this disc. In the same way that the Violin Concerto and Octet represent two very different stages in Mendelssohn's life and artistic development, 'On Wings of Song' (opus 34 no. 2) and 'Suleika' (opus 34 no. 4), composed between 1834 and 1837, stem from a time where Mendelssohn was entering a new phase in his life, leaving Düsseldorf to become music director of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig, where he would achieve arguably his greatest success. It was also here that he went on to compose the Violin Concerto.
'Witches' Song' (opus 8) is one of Mendelssohn's early masterpieces, which like the Scherzo of his Octet, delights in the supernatural, a source of constant inspiration for the composer.
On a personal note, 'Suleika' was the favourite song of my great-great grandfather, Julius Valentin. The libretto comes from Goethe's 'West-Eastern Divan', which he knew so intimately. The photo which I have of Julius even contains a hand written quote from these poems. It is my tribute to an extraordinary man.
Daniel Hope's Mendelssohn
Are we to expect a “normal" performance of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto from Daniel Hope? Is the musician whose interests as a performer run from Bach to Indian ragas, and from Schnittke to jazz, likely to be happy giving us just another standard recording of this familiar old piece to add to the many already in existence? Well, as The New York Times once said of him, “you never know what the brilliant young British violinist will do next", and on this album he presents a version of the Mendelssohn that you are unlikely to have heard before - a new edition which reveals how the work was before the composer made changes to it leading up to publication, partly on the advice of its first soloist, Ferdinand David.
“It's as much about the feeling it gives me as about precise differences", explains Hope, for whom - having already made a highly acclaimed recording of a new critically revised edition of the Berg Violin Concerto - the search for an alternative view has clearly become a standard part of the creative process. “I find it interesting to see how the mind of a composer works, for Mendelssohn as much as for any other, and it was fascinating to discover what he actually had in his head before David advised him. It's that whole premise of trying to get as close as I can to the source. If you have the chance to really dig into what the composer wanted, it can provide greater depth to your performance of the piece."
So much for the performer, but what kind of differences will it make to the listener? “There are well over 100 changes if you compare the versions, and it's been a matter of sitting down with Thomas Hengelbrock and examining each one. There are several passages that will cause people who know the work well to be taken aback at first: most notably where Mendelssohn has taken the solo line up or down an octave, added entirely new notes to the violin part, or slightly changed the wind writing where, for example, David reduced octave passages to a single line. But it is pure Mendelssohn, and all the magical elements that make the Violin Concerto what it is, that make it so loved and so popular, are completely intact."
Hope's own love affair with the Mendelssohn goes back a long way. “It's a piece which has accompanied me throughout my life - it was the first concerto I ever heard live, the first one I ever learned, and the one with which I made my debut. There's also a story attached to it. When I was eight and a student at the Yehudi Menuhin School in London, I desperately wanted to learn it, but basically wasn't good enough and wasn't allowed near it. I became so frustrated that after several months I secretly borrowed the score, but then I got caught and was frog-marched to Director of Music's office - it was a very serious matter to be caught practising the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto without permission! Shortly after that I left the school, so make of that what you will . . ."
With a piece as familiar as this - the Mendelssohn would effortlessly find its way on to any “Great Violin Concertos" list - it can be difficult to pin down the precise qualities that put it there. Hope agrees, but is willing to make an attempt: “All I can say is that it has absolutely everything that a violinist and musician could wish for: the most beautiful melodies, the Romantic struggle of violin against orchestra, a Sturm und Drang quality which at times is close to Beethoven, and that incredible skittish scherzo writing unique to Mendelssohn. It has both virtuosity and lightness, and is a wonderfully happy work, even though there are moments of great poignancy. It's the most perfect concerto because it touches people wherever you play it. The reaction you get from a performance of it is really unlike any other."
Hope himself experienced reactions of a very particular and moving kind when performing it on tour in Germany under the baton of one of his heroes, Yehudi Menuhin. “It was one of the pieces with which he made his name as a violinist, and the one he performed in Germany before the end of the Second World War when Mendelssohn's music had been banned by the Nazis. At every concert I gave with him in Germany, people would come up to him afterwards and say 'we've never forgotten that you brought Mendelssohn back to us'; so every time I perform the Concerto I think of him and the extraordinary way he played it."
Hope's own German roots - his mother's parents were forced to leave the country in the 1930s because of the family's distant Jewish ancestry - are explored in Familienstücke. Eine Spurensuche, a book published in German that he has written to coincide with this recording. “In a sense it's a musical journey, but also a family history", he explains. “My father's side was Irish and my parents met in South Africa, and this is interspersed with stories of my own childhood and the rather curious, often mysterious family history. But there's also a connection to Mendelssohn, because we're direct descendants of Carl Friedrich Zelter, who was Mendelssohn's great teacher and supervised the composition of the Octet."
No wonder, then, that the Mendelssohn Octet is companion to the Concerto on this album. Again, Hope has looked beyond the standard text and recorded it for the first time in the Mendelssohn Ausgabe's recently published revised edition; and again it is a piece he has known for a long time. “I've played it many times, but this was the first with members of the COE. When I recorded Bach with them a while back, I just loved that great sense of individual players, and that's why I wanted to involve them in this as well. The Octet's got to be up there as the greatest piece ever written by a teenager, just for sheer inventiveness and confidence. I really love its grand scale, but it wasn't until I saw the new edition that I knew about Mendelssohn's own instruction, 'this Octet must be performed in the style of a symphony'. I think the fact that a 16-year-old could write that shows that he knew exactly what he wanted!"
Lindsay Kemp 7/2007
Six Songs, Op.34 - 2. Auf den Flügeln des Gesanges, MWV K86