Saturday, 18 February 2012

Making Overtures

What this blog obviously needs is a chart countdown. It's been all the rage at Classic FM for years, and BBC Radio 3 has leaped on the bandwagon too now, so...'s my countdown of the best (stand-alone) overtures by Mendelssohn. There are seven contenders, and the countdown will follow tradition and work its way from lowest (worst) to highest (best). Exciting, eh?

Written when Felix was around 15 years old, this is his earliest overture and so it's probably not surprising that it lies in bottom place in this survey. It lacks the stamp of Mendelssohn's own personality, borrowing the personality of Mozart (in the slow introduction) and Weber (in the fast main section) instead. That's how young, learning composers develop of course, so Felix isn't to be blamed for writing in their style. It's far from being a dud though. There's a softly-lit slow section to begin with, whose main melody is pleasing and whose warmth of wind sonority brings a nice glow to this listener's stomach. The fast section (in sonata form) isn't quite so enjoyable, though the perky, colourfully-scored second subject is charming.

Written just before the Midsummer Night's Dream overture, this is better than its predecessor. It has a lot going for it, including bags of energy and some imaginative touches of scoring. What it lacks is memorable tunes. The work is unified by the fanfare-like figures first heard at the very beginning of the overture, and the best bits of the overture come with the use of the these figures at the start of the development section (2.42 onwards) and again towards its close (4.56 onwards), where something of the mystery and magic of the Hebrides Overture is glimpsed. The shimmering strings and the modulating harmonies suggest a sea-scape to me - and Felix is at his best when evoking the sea.

A portentous opening on brass presages a few melodramatic passages in this famous overture, evoking a play by Victor Hugo (for which Felix felt no high regard). The vigorous main theme is memorable and fully characteristic of its composer and the more lyrical second subject (introduced over pizzicato strings) is likable, though its sprightly companion is even more engaging. So, as you can see, lots of good tunes this time. The themes are developed with considerable purpose if with no moments of special magic. Because of its lack of such moments, I place this overture in such a low position.

Ah yes, those opening rippling figures from the clarinets, aren't they lovely? And, if you know your Wagner, they will inevitably remind you of the prelude to Das Rheingold (though Wagner makes something far more extraordinary and majestic of them than our Felix) where they serve a similarly watery purpose. Here they conjure up the beauty of the mermaid-like Melusina. The dotted rhythms in her theme, however, give her something of a domestic quality. A proud, dramatic theme in the minor erupts representing Melusina's soon-to-be husband, the knight Lusignan. The violins follow this with a more lyrical theme (surely a love theme) which is the work's best tune. The development of these themes runs through the expected paths, and the development of the main (Melusina) theme could (I'd have hoped) modulated with a good deal more magic than it does. The predictability of the development section (despite the pleasing way Mendelssohn takes us into the recapitulation) results in the overture being marked down into fourth place.

Goethe's twin poems are set to a two-part overture, the slow section depicting the calm sea - a merchant ship becalmed, so not a good thing in those days! - and the fast section depicting the ship speeding towards its destination. The 'Calm Sea' section is music of extraordinary visionary beauty and results in the overture's high ranking. The stillness and solitariness it evokes are tangible and can be compared to Beethoven's own setting of the poems. The wind-led transition to the breezy allegro is imaginative too. The 'Prosperous Voyage' section is nowhere near as magical as 'Calm Sea', but it's enjoyable enough, with some good themes and some attractive textures. Its weak point is its largely dull development section.

This is a close runner-up to my winning overture, as it and the winning overture are two of the composer's greatest and most-loved achievements. Purely personal preference places this in second place, as it's a work whose spell never fails (in a decent performance) to lift my spirits. Its structural proportions are perfect, its themes unforgettable and its scoring immaculate, beginning with four magical wind chords (destined to return at the very end). The fairy music on violins, with occasional pizzicato accompaniment from the violas, is ingenious and magical. Then there's the bold tune for the Athenian royals, which is followed (after a fine transition passage) by a lyrical theme for the lovers, begun by the woodwinds and continued by the strings. Next it's the rude mechanicals, and Bottom braying like an ass. So many fine ideas. The poetic development section concentrates on the fairy theme and takes us deep into magical strangeness, with all manner of unexpected noises. Its wistful close is a final surprise. The recapitulation is straightforward, which just leaves the very beautiful coda. Ah, what a work from such a young man, just 16 years old when he wrote it.

It had to be. This is my favourite piece by Mendelssohn, never mind just the overtures. Its poetry surpasses even the Midsummer Night's Dream overture. Again, it's sea music that brings out the finest magic from Felix. The scoring is of such a luminous beauty that, to borrow a phrase Debussy used about Wagner's Parsifal, it seems lit from behind. It's quite remarkable how much mileage the composer gets out of the little six-note melodic motif you hear at the very beginning. It is the essence of his main theme and often accompanies his other themes. The figure inescapably prompts images in the mind of the swell of the sea. The broad and beautiful second subject, begun by cellos, sings out against a lovely shimmer from the high strings, before passing to those very strings. It's heavenly stuff, but there's even more heavenly music to come. The development section is an absolute stunner. The main theme - i.e. that six-note figure - is send through all manner of keys against fanfare-like figures and more shimmering from the strings. The magic, mystery and majesty of the scene are indescribably moving. And then there's the most magical key change of all (at 5.16), as the music slows and the heart is flooded with warmth. A shadow of anxiety then seems to pass over, mingled with awe, and the development section then picks up speed and dances its way to an exciting climax and the wonderful re-entry of the main theme for the recapitulation. This time the recapitulation is not straightforward but rather a re-imagined take on the exposition. The coda is short and brilliant, with a final delightful surprise to finish. What a piece of music!

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