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Pianist Byron Shenkman and cellist Michael Unterman present a recital based on composers from the Mendelssohn circle in Leipzig, each of whom was born Jewish but converted to Christianity to conform to societal norms. The works by Ignaz Moscheles and Felix Mendelssohn in particular are notable for the ways in which they riff off of Lutheran roots in surprising ways.
Moscheles’ Etudes in Melodic Counterpoint are fascinating miniatures, based on preludes by J.S. Bach, remembered in Leipzig as the former director of the Thomaskirche. Preludes from The Well-Tempered Clavier are played as Bach wrote them by the piano, with added melodic lines written by Moscheles for the cello. They are whimsical throwbacks to what some consider the beginnings of the Historical Performance movement, set off by Felix Mendelssohn’s revivals of the St. Matthew Passion.
A similar but more emotionally poignant transformation occurs in the third movement of his Sonata in D major, which begins with a simple church chorale on the piano, then is answered by a chromatically tinted and verklempt outcry on the cello. The two contrasting voices continue in dialogue, finding resolution at the movement’s closing. Whether the inspiration for this cello part is Ashkenazi, or perhaps Roma, the movement represents a remarkable clash of cultures, perhaps reflecting a similar split within Mendelssohn himself.
This concert will be followed by a free screening of Bach, Mendelssohn and the St. Matthew Passion at 4pm. This is a documentary for the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia and the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia funded by the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, leading up to the Mendelssohn Club’s North American Premiere of the historic Mendelssohn version of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Participants include internationally noted authorities on both Bach and Mendelssohn; locations included Berlin, Leipzig and the Bodleian Library at Oxford University.
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Ignaz Moscheles: selections from Etudes in Melodic Counterpoint, Op.137a
Fanny Mendelssohn: Fantasy in G minor
Felix Mendelssohn: Sonata No. 2 in D major, Op. 58
Ignaz Moscheles: Melodisch-contrapunktische Studien, Op. 137a
The name Ignaz (Isaac) Moscheles is most often encountered in the narrative of music history as one of the great pianists of his day. This makes him one of the more interesting linking figures in music, beginning with his friendship with Beethoven in his younger years, then, at the height of his career, we find him performing alongside Chopin, a close friend of the Schumanns, and a dear friend and colleague of Felix Mendelssohn.
Moscheles was also an early proponent of historical performance, dating back to his days as a student at the Prague Conservatory where his pianistic training was based primarily on the music of Clementi, Mozart, and J.S. Bach. Some twenty years later, while residing in London, he established a series of “historical soirées” in which he performed the music of Bach, Handel, and Scarlatti on the harpsichord.
Another example of his interest in earlier music are these Studies in Melodic Counterpoint, which, as in a true modern-day remix, overlay new material on existing works, in this case preludes from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. These pieces most likely take their cue from Charles Gounod’s “Ave Maria,” originally titled Méditation sur le Premier Prélude de Piano de S. Bach, published ten years prior in 1853. Moscheles’s more academic title hints at a different approach, rather than striving for pure lyricism as in the Gounod, there is a pronounced feeling of exploration and active interaction with Bach’s writing.
Fanny Mendelssohn: Fantasie in G minor
Like Moscheles, Fanny Mendelssohn shared a lifelong connection to the music of J.S. Bach, literally from day one, when her mother Lea was reputed to have commented on her newborn daughter’s “Bach fingers.” She would later study theory and composition with Carl Friedrich Zelter, an early champion of Bach, and Bach’s music would feature prominently in the musical salon she later established in Berlin in the 1830s.
It is also around this time that her Fantasie for cello was written, quite possibly for one of these salon gatherings, and possibly even for her cellist brother Paul, for whom her brother Felix wrote a number of compositions for cello as well. The style of the Fantasie is classic lyrical Romanticism, making tactful use of the cello’s darker hues and vocal qualities, crafting something of a concert aria for cello and piano, much like her brother Felix’s Songs Without Words.
Felix Mendelssohn: Sonata No. 2 in D major, Op. 58
If Fanny’s Fantasie is akin to a concert aria, then Felix’s Sonata in D major is a one-act opera, again supremely lyrical, and highly dramatic. Like Fanny’s piece it was likely written for their brother Paul, and during an extremely busy stretch for Felix, as he was fully involved as music director of the Gewandhaus Orchestra, in high demand as a composer and conductor in Berlin, and in the thick of establishing a new music college in Leipzig whose faculty also included none other than Robert Schumann.
The D major sonata is very much the Hollywood blockbuster, full of adventure (1st movement), humor and love (2nd movement), and death-defying chase scenes (4th movement). What sets it apart is its phenomenal slow movement which elevates the whole in the way that a great actor can elevate a simple drama, like Judi Dench in the 007 franchise, or Patrick Stewart in just about anything. The movement is a dialogue of sorts, between Bach-like chorale introduced in the piano, and passionate recitativo accompagnato led by the cello, only that it isn’t a true dialogue; the chorale stays constant, comforting and embracing, while the cello is gradually soothed.
Some have speculated that this movement reflects of the conversion Mendelssohn underwent as a child from Judaism to Lutheranism. This theory can never be more than conjecture, but one can’t deny the narrative that begins with two wholly incongruous styles, stoic chorale and passionate opera, in which the interloper is gradually pacified through the course of the movement. There is also the curious fact of Felix’s full name, Mendelssohn Bartholdy, the latter of which was added upon his conversion with the intention of the family Mendelssohn to be eventually dropped, and yet it remained.
Michael Unterman May 2017
Byron Schenkman, fortepiano
Byron Schenkman has recorded more than thirty CDs of 17th– and 18th-century repertoire, including recordings on historical instruments from the National Music Museum, Vermillion, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. A recipient of the Erwin Bodky Award from the Cambridge Society for Early Music “for outstanding achievement in the field of early music,” he was voted “Best Classical Instrumentalist” by the readers of Seattle Weekly, and his piano playing has been described in The New York Times as “sparkling,” “elegant,” and “insightful.”
He has been a featured guest with the Chameleon Arts Ensemble of Boston, the Daedalus Quartet, Les Enfants d’Orphée, the Northwest Sinfonietta, Pacific Baroque Orchestra, Philharmonia Northwest, and the Portland Baroque Orchestra. He was also founding co-director of the Seattle Baroque Orchestra with violinist Ingrid Matthews. In 2013, he launched Byron Schenkman & Friends, a Baroque and Classical chamber music series at Benaroya Hall in Seattle. Schenkman is a graduate of the New England Conservatory and received his master’s degree with honors in performance from the Indiana University School of Music. He currently teaches at Seattle University and has been a guest lecturer in harpsichord and fortepiano at Indiana University.
Michael Unterman, cello
Michael Unterman enjoys a busy and varied performing career. He is a member of the chamber orchestra A Far Cry (Boston, MA) and the Portland Baroque Orchestra (Portland, OR). He can also be found performing as a guest with ensembles such as Boston Baroque, The Handel and Haydn Society, Trinity Baroque Orchestra, The Knights, and the Callithumpian Consort, and at the Birdfoot Festival in New Orleans.
Michael graduated in 2014 from Juilliard’s Historical Performance program where he studied with Phoebe Carrai. Prior to that, he earned Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the New England Conservatory, studying with Laurence Lesser and Natasha Brofsky, and was a Fulbright scholar in Barcelona, Spain, where he studied with Lluis Claret.