The first of the two Proms by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra featured an all-Mendelssohn programme. The orchestra has a long tradition of performing Mendelssohn’s music, as he was their Music Director from 1835 until his early death in 1847. The current Music Director Riccardo Chailly, since his appointment in 2005, has been enthusiastic about having a fresh look at this tradition, and has been performing and recording the symphonies and the overtures in their original versions, as well as recording the completed version of the unfinished Third Piano Concerto.

The programme consisted of two of Mendelssohn’s concert overtures, Ruy Blas and The Fair Melusina, the ever-popular Violin Concerto in E minor and the “Reformation” Symphony. Except for the violin concerto, all the works were all given in the “original version” (in the recent edition by Christopher Hogwood). Unless one is very familiar with these works, the features of the original versions may not be immediately apparent (except perhaps for the striking flute recitative that bridges the third and fourth movements of the symphony, which was later omitted), but nevertheless it was interesting to hear Mendelssohn’s first thoughts. Contrary to general perception, Mendelssohn was not merely a composer of inspiration (although he did compose the Ruy Blas overture in 3 days!) but also of perspiration: in fact, he was a perfectionist and he kept on revising his works until he thought fit for publication (in the case of the “Reformation” Symphony, he did not sanction the publication during his lifetime).

The Gewandhaus Orchestra began with a passionate and urgent account of the Ruy Blas overture, which was inspired by a play by Victor Hugo. The orchestra has a characteristically warm and dark timbre which was evident from the opening brass chorale. Personally, I felt that the size of the strings for this piece (14 first violins and 12 second violins) was too large for this music – even considering the size of the Royal Albert Hall. In Mendelssohn’s music, one needs to bring out clarity of texture as well the delicate colours and shades, but in this performance, the strings sometimes sounded muddy (even though the violins were placed on opposite sides of the stage) and seemed to overpower the woodwind.

The string section was downsized for the violin concerto, with Nikolaj Znaider as the soloist. I have always been an admirer of the tone which he draws out of his Guaneri del Gesù, but apart from the sweetness of tone and a stable technique, his interpretation lacked character or stylistic consistency. Znaider has recently taken up conducting but despite this, he didn’t actively lead or interact with the orchestral players, even when the violin has a dialogue with the woodwind solos. He would often rush and Chailly had to keep a tight rein to keep the soloist and orchestra together. Znaider’s Bach encore (the Gavotte from the Solo Partita no. 3) was also pleasantly played but a little bland as a dance movement.

The Fair Melusina overture, which opened the second half, was inspired by a medieval legend about a water-nymph. As with the more popular Hebrides overture, Mendelssohn’s depiction of the sea – sometimes calm and sometimes stormy – is Romantic and evocative. Here too Chailly led an enthusiastic reading, although at times the music felt too driven and there were some intonation glitches in the brass. Also, the more intimate moments with the woodwind solos were lost in the vastness of the hall.

The “Reformation” Symphony was composed to celebrate the tercentenary of the Confession of Augsburg in 1830, and for Mendelssohn it was also a statement about his own Protestant faith (although his family was Jewish, he converted to Christianity as a child). In this performance of the original version, we were able to hear Mendelssohn’s first thoughts for this symphony, and how he grappled with the symphonic form in constructing this programmatic music. Overall, the orchestra gave a warm and sincere performance, building up to the climax of the spiritual final movement, where a solo recitative by the flute leads into Bach’s chorale setting of Luther’s “Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott”. Chailly and the orchestra rounded off the concert with a delightful encore – the Wedding March from his incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream.