The Forgotten Mendelssohn
By George Loomis
February 3, 2009

NEW YORK - On Jan. 28, the Museum of Jewish Heritage presented an event that many may have thought not possible: a concert of more than a dozen works by Mendelssohn, not one of which had been heard since the composer's lifetime. Even more astonishing is the fact that they represented only a fraction of his music still awaiting an audience. Such is the goal of the Mendelssohn Project, established in 1996 by conductor Stephen Somary: to bring the composer's overlooked music to light.

The neglect of a vast portion of Mendelssohn's output is the result of an unusual confluence of events, starting with his own prodigious output, much of which was intended simply for himself, his family and his friends. Born into a wealthy Jewish family, he did not need to generate income by publishing his works, nor did he enjoy the process of putting works in "final" form for publication. Some 270 of his compositions, according to Somary, remain unpublished. After his death Mendelssohn's artistic reputation was battered by Wagner's attack on him in the notorious pamphlet "Das Judenthum in der Musik," and in the Nazi period his works were proscribed - factors that worked against a systematic investigation of musical sources. For their safety, most of his manuscripts were, prior to World War II, sent from the Berlin State Library to Warsaw and Krakow, and after Poland fell to the Germans they were scattered around the globe. Building on the research of many scholars, the Mendelssohn Project has sought to identify the whereabouts of each manuscript, with the goal of achieving a complete picture of the composer's output.

These performances were billed as "world premieres," a term the Mendelssohn Project uses to embrace any first hearing of a work not performed since Mendelssohn's death. According to Somary, evidence exists that two works - the song "Erwartung," with an anonymous text, and "Wasserfahrt," one of four vocal duets - were given in the salon of Mendelssohn's sister Fanny as part of an event for which admission was charged. "Wasserfahrt," set to a poem by Heinrich Heine, is especially fine and energetic, as a galloping accompaniment suggests tumultuous waves while a homesick lover sings of heartache on his way out to sea; but one wonders why Mendelssohn cast it as a duet. Another duet, "Wie kann ich froh und lustig sein?," about a faraway lover during wintertime, brought to mind Schubert"s "Winterreise," in the way final lines of stanzas were repeated in an apparently more thoughtful and definitive way.

The bulk of the other pieces were probably likewise first heard in home or semi-public performances. A particularly affecting one was occasioned by the birth of the Mendelssohn's first child, the lullaby "So schlaf' in Ruh," written for the parents themselves to sing. With its tranquil melody heightened by expressive chromatic inflections and extended phrases, it would make a fine encore to a lieder recital by a singer otherwise inclined to sing the cradlesong of Brahms. "So schlaf' in Ruh" and the other vocal numbers were appealingly sung by mezzo Abigail Nims and baritone Kevin Deas.

The two multi-movement instrumental works bear their composer's stamp of genius, even if neither seems poised to take a place in the repertoire. Both are on a rather smallish scale, with initial movements that, even with the exposition repeated, last only about five minutes. The Trio for Violin, Viola and Piano in C minor, played by Yi-Wen Jiang, Honggang Li and Anna Polonsky, has the hallmarks of good chamber music, with lively dialogues among the instruments; the slow movement has an element of mystery and the intense finale, driven by an omnipresent four-note motif, also impressed. The earliest work of the program, the Sonata for Piano in F minor, written when the composer was 11, also has a fiery final movement, played here with brio by Orion Weiss.

The most unusual offering was a set of 12 Fugues for String Quartet, compellingly played by the Shanghai Quartet. The music of Bach was basic to Mendelssohn's education, and the master's influence is shot through these fascinating pieces, composed when Mendelssohn was all of 12. The first fugue has a subject that might have come from one of the Brandenburg Concertos, while the triadic opening of the fifth fugue is an obvious allusion to Art of Fugue. The young composer's skill is truly dazzling-in the 10th fugue he somehow works in the familiar chorale tune "Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern" amidst the counterpoint. But what struck me most was that, despite the intricacy of the music, Mendelssohn often achieved the characteristic lightness of texture associated with many of his mature works. Similar revelations are bound to occur as more of the Mendelssohn Project's groundbreaking work is made public.