Behavioural scientists – and sometimes the rest of us too – love to argue the merits of the Nature versus Nurture debate. It is perfectly legitimate to apply similar deliberations to the development of the great composers. How important were direct influences from contemporaries and mentors, how much did the Zeitgeist matter and to what extent was the individual voice simply a product of the right genetic mix?

Jonathan Bloxham
© Kaupo Kikkas

In the case of Mendelssohn’s Symphony no. 1 in C minor, which the composer initially termed his 13th following a dozen symphonies written for strings alone, influences are certainly recognisable. Beethoven and Weber say their hellos in the first Allegro, Spohr’s fondness for chromatic harmonies is discernible in the E flat major Andante and there are backward glances to Mozart’s great G minor symphony in the Minuet. And yet... this is indubitably Mendelssohn.

Jonathan Bloxham, stepping in for the indisposed Paavo Järvi to conduct the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, clearly thinks so too. The fizzing effervescence of the opening movement was served up with all the hormonal energy of a typical teenager, its bubbling energy splendidly conveyed by the agile and fleet-footed strings. In the slow movement their soft cushion of sound provided an ideal foil for the contributions of the characterful wind: silvery flutes, plangent oboes, warm-toned clarinets and fruity bassoons. Natural trumpets added their own spectral characteristics. Lest we forget: the overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream was merely two years away.

The notoriously self-critical Mendelssohn was dissatisfied with his Menuetto, so much so that when the work was premiered in London in 1829, he substituted his own arrangement of the Scherzo from his Octet (written just one year after the symphony). This was played here as an orchestral encore, light as a MasterChef’s soufflé, but it hardy came close to the weight and interest of the original movement. Bloxham didn’t quite secure the rhythmic solidity in the string lines which are more than just a nod to the Beethovenian Scherzo, but he achieved a magical quality (pre-echoes of the Dream again) in the Trio section with a gently rocking effect, almost like a lullaby, conjured up by very soft strings. Then comes one of this composer’s masterstrokes: in the transition to the recapitulation of the Minuet, beautifully engineered by Bloxham, the timpani echoes the opening theme from Beethoven’s own C minor symphony, producing a unique momentary chill in an otherwise sunny and frolicsome work.

In 1822, just two years before Mendelssohn’s C minor symphony, Schubert composed his Unfinished. Could he have written this extraordinary piece and its dramatic, eruptive moments without the influence of Beethoven? Hard to think so. And Beethoven himself called the key in which Schubert wrote it – B minor – “the black key”. I wonder to what extent Bloxham’s approach to this work was coloured by the fire and almost feverish intensity of the two outer movements in the symphony that followed. This was a very brightly-lit Unfinished, with scarcely a dark corner or attic door left teasingly half-open. It had plenty of energy, the melodies clean, clear and untrammelled by any undercurrents of introspection. It was curious to see a trained cellist paying so little attention to string lines and, in particular, inner voices. The darkness of the descent in cellos and basses at the start of the Allegro scarcely registered, and throughout both movements the wind and brass were very much to the fore. To be sure, they gave appropriate cries of anguish in the development section, but their dominance reinforced Bloxham’s emphasis on primary colours and left little room for pastel shades of wistfulness. Throughout I was conscious more of the darting arrows being delivered by Hermes the wingèd messenger rather than the currents of air they were displacing. Bloxham’s direction never lacked clarity or direction, but in all three works the left hand was seldom deployed to shape the lines or heighten expressiveness. Instead, its use was largely confined to eliciting rhythmic precision, urging and propelling the music on.

And how about Erkki-SvenTüür, born in 1959, whose Flamma for strings (just 17 of them in this performance) opened the programme? Which influences are detectable here? On his own admission, this Estonian composer, who started out as a member of a rock band, seeks to bring “North American minimalism and Central European modernism under the same roof”. Flamma was written in 2011 for Richard Tognetti and the Australian Chamber Orchestra, but the title is a purely abstract one, since there is no growing conflagration, still less a firestorm, and the music meanders from one incendiary beginning to the next as though requiring constant re-ignition. Bloxham stressed the dancing and leaping qualities of the imaginary flames and in the slower, more lyrical passages damped down the heat to ensure that the constant smouldering was never in danger of activating the fire sprinklers.