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In With the Old: New Works by Old Masters


The young Felix Mendelssohn plays for Goethe, who compared him, of course, to Mozart. (dpa)

Tonight Calgary, Canada is presenting the North American premiere of a “new” work by Felix Mendelssohn: his third piano concerto, reconstructed by Marcello Buffalini, which just had its UK premiere in April, and which will be released on CD – in a recording with Riccardo Chailly and the Leipziger Gewandhaus – in September.

Although you could say that the North American premiere of the Third Concerto happened in March, when the Lyric Chamber Ensemble, a New York-based group, performed the version of the concerto completed by another Mendelssohn scholar, Larry Todd. (Jessica Duchen, the writer and journalist, has been on the case over at the Mendelssohn blog she is writing this year for the BBC.)

It’s Mendelssohn’s 200th anniversary year, so the focus on Mendelssohn is not surprising. This spring saw several other Mendelssohn "premieres," including several songs by the Lyric Chamber Ensemble and a reconstruction of a two-piano concerto the composer wrote with Moscheles in February; the Mendelssohn Project is devoted to exhuming and reconstructing as many of the composer's forgotten works as possible.

But there have been a bevy of other similar “new” works this spring. March saw the world premiere of a violin concerto in C by Ludwig van Beethoven in a version reconstructed from manuscript fragments by the Dutch Beethoven scholar Cees Nieuwenhuizen. (Nieuwenhuizen has already been responsible for the premiere of a reconstruction of Beethoven’s oboe concerto in 2003, and of a piano concerto movement in 2005). On March 1, another newly-discovered Beethoven work – a piano trio – was performed for the first time in Chicago, on a concert that also included the American premieres of two other Beethoven piano trios.
(read more after the jump)

In a similar vein is the Schubert CD, completing the “Unfinished Symphony,” that I wrote about here (second review down). Or last year’s release of the Rachmaninoff Fifth Piano Concerto (which is actually a version of the Second Symphony). Or, last fall, the excitement about the undiscovered melodic fragment by Mozart that turned up in a French library.

This kind of rediscovery and reconstruction proceeds directly out of the hagiography so pronounced in classical music. It's a combination of veneration for the composers who have been elevated into the canon and a hunger for new works – a hunger that can’t be quite appeased by actual contemporary compositions, which usually sound quite different from the “classical music” that many orchestra audiences crave. The idea of new works by old geniuses also captures the attention of the non-classical media, which trumpets rediscoveries without really knowing what’s going on. (I recall hearing on the radio some news report about the Mozart rediscovery in which the announcer brightly said that we wouldn’t really be able to appreciate it until we had heard it performed by an orchestra – a little difficult for a melody sketch a few bars long.)

There are limitations to this kind of warmed-over work: how “new” is it really? (Todd arranged the last movement of the violin concerto for his piano concerto’s finale; the Beethoven piano trio premiered in Chicago was actually the composer’s piano-trio arrangement of a single movement of his own Op. 3 string trio in E-flat; the reconstructed Schubert “Unfinished” concluded with an arrangement of the incidental music to “Rosamunde,” and so on.) And as Todd’s and Buffalini’s competing versions of the same concerto demonstrate, there are infinite ways to go about finishing an unfinished work, however faithful one tries to remain to the composer’s views. But you could also argue that these reconstructions allow a fresh perspective on the familiar – never a bad thing in a field that is focused on reproducing well-known pieces over and over.

The irony is that even of the published work of the great composers -- Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, Mendelssohn -- only a fraction is actually played. Indeed, most people don't even know how much work there is. In his excellent article about Mendelssohn and his "world premieres" this year, Allan Kozinn said that about 270 of Mendelssohn's 750 works remained unpublished and unknown; an article the same month about Michael Cooper, a Mendelssohn scholar, stated that only about 150 of Mendelssohn's 400 works survive today. I find it interesting that the consensus is closer on the number of missing works -- which both articles place in the neighborhood of 250 -- than on the number of extant works, on which the two articles differ by more than 300. It might make more sense to focus on what we have.

What are your thoughts on reconstructions and "world premieres" of pieces that are (not quite) by late great masters?

By Anne Midgette  |  May 11, 2009; 10:05 AM ET
Categories:  music history , news , random musings  
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Comments

Yet there are "new" compositions by the "old" masters that are accepted to the cannon. The best example is Mahler's 10th symphony. Also Lulu as completed by Cerha. One that starts to be accepted at least in England is Elgar's 3rd "completed" by Payne.

We may also see this as the continuation of the old phenomenon of composers adapting someone else's work. Bach did it to Vivaldi, Mozart to Handel, Ravel to Mussorgsky, Stokowski to Bach and so on. Mahler himself arranged a "Bach Suite." So what is happening with the "completions" is basically the next step.

Ultimately a work should be judged by its merrit. Which is why Lulu works and "Beethoven's Oboe Concerto" is no more than a curiosity.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | May 11, 2009 11:25 AM | Report abuse

Fascinating column; one that will be "bookmarked."

Question about the newly discovered third Mendelssohn Third Piano Concerto: Why is the adolescent Felix' Concerto for Piano and Strings in A-minor not counted among the piano concerti?

It's seldom recorded, but it's a wonderful piece.

Michael

Posted by: scottmp | May 11, 2009 12:09 PM | Report abuse

The rate of new-old works is alarming. I have just seen a publication of Beethoven's 35 piano sonatas. ABRSM published three works of 12-year old Beethoven along with the familiar 32. I don't know if Beethoven is turning in his grave or actually approving the completeness of academic research and worship of child prodigies. For most people I know revelations of their juvenile efforts would be unwelcome and embarrassing. But I also understand the desire to find and publish every scrap of paper ever written by cultural heroes.

Posted by: annasht | May 11, 2009 8:06 PM | Report abuse

The rate of new-old works is alarming. I have just seen a publication of Beethoven's 35 piano sonatas. ABRSM published three works of 12-year old Beethoven along with the familiar 32. I don't know if Beethoven is turning in his grave or actually approving the completeness of academic research and worship of child prodigies. For most people I know revelations of their juvenile efforts would be unwelcome and embarrassing. But I also understand the desire to find and publish every scrap of paper ever written by cultural heroes.

Posted by: annasht | May 11, 2009 8:06 PM | Report abuse

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