This Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra concert presented vibrant readings of music by three master composers – Bach, Schubert and Mendelssohn. The program opened with two excerpts from Schubert’s incidental music to the play Rosamunde, a now-forgotten drama first mounted in 1823. Not counting the spurious overture, the two selections performed tonight are the most famous excerpts. The Entr’acte is a fine example of how Schubert could take the simplest of themes and turn it into a magical musical experience – which is exactly how tonight’s performance came across. The Ballet Music was treated to interesting variations in tempo, with some eyebrow-raising accelerandos that seemed somewhat jarring, perhaps taking too much of a “Romantic” interpretative approach to the music. A few hours later while writing this review, I’m thinking that what may have seemed a little gimmicky “in the moment” might, in fact, be a valid interpretation (although an unusual one).

Felix Mendelssohn © Public domain
Felix Mendelssohn
© Public domain

The Double Concerto for two violins in D minor may be Bach’s most famous concertante work and it isn’t difficult to understand why. Not only is it a brilliant showcase for the soloists, it has a certain intensity in the outer movements that makes it a standout composition among the composer’s instrumental works. Bach must have sensed this as well, considering that he also made an arrangement of the piece as a two-harpsichord concerto.

In tonight’s performance, SPCO violinists Maureen Nelson and Kyu-Young Kim did the solo honors. They were impressively aggressive in how they approached the contrapuntal interweaving of themes and their interplay with the orchestra (my use of the term “aggressive” is meant as a positive characterization).

Providing wonderful contrast was the second movement Largo ma non tanto, where Nelson and Kim were sublime in their presentation of Bach’s melodic lines. I’ve rarely heard such poignancy and tenderness in this movement but there was also passion, without anything sounding “forced.” The musicians seemed to know that playing this movement “straight” is all that’s needed to bring all the invention and expressiveness inherent in Bach’s score to the fore. The final movement was brilliant as well. It was a tightly wrought presentation, with impressive ensemble along with the strident “competing” solo violins, resulting in a performance that was terrifically exciting. Overall, this was an uncommonly good performance of a universally admired Bach concerto.

Any performance of Mendelssohn’s Symphony no. 1 in C minor is a welcome event, because, let’s face it, the piece gets short shrift compared to the composer’s other essays in the genre (even the choral Lobgesang seems to get more outings these days). The fact that Mendelssohn was all of 15 years old when he created this symphony makes it a doubly impressive accomplishment. Tonight’s performance was a major adrenaline rush from first note to last. Even with its obvious debt to the classical masters, one can’t help but feel that Mendelssohn was leaving his early string symphonies – and Schubert – behind and looking to the future. Right out of the gate, the Allegro di molto was delivered with brusque incisiveness, which is exactly what this opening movement needs.  Ensemble and textures were spot on – particularly the SPCO strings – with just the right punctuating accents delivered by the winds and timpani.

In the contrasting Andante, the chorale-like theme was introduced with reverence by the strings, joined by the clarinets, oboes and flutes. But this was a performance that went beyond mere beauty to convey a quiet intensity as well. In the concluding two movements, the Saint Paul players were once again firing on all cylinders, with themes tossed back and forth between the major sections of the orchestra. Tempos were swifter than one often hears... and they were extraordinarily effective. The Trio section of the Menuetto was particularly impressive. Some people see a connection between the primary theme of the final movement (Allegro con fuoco) and the final movement of Mozart’s Symphony no. 40, but that was hard to discern in this vital, full-bodied treatment. In sum, with a performance as committed and convincing as this, one couldn’t be faulted for thinking that this youthful work by Mendelssohn is (nearly) the equal of his achievements in his later symphonies; certainly, that’s what this SPCO presentation displayed.

Responding to the enthusiastic cheers at the conclusion of the concert, the SPCO musicians treated the appreciative audience to an encore: Mendelssohn’s own orchestration of the Scherzo movement from his famous Octet. The composer had actually created this arrangement for a London performance of his First Symphony where it was played in lieu of the original Menuetto movement. After hearing the SPCO’s gossamer, lighter-than-air treatment of the Scherzo, I wouldn’t want to be without either one of them.