New Classical Tracks: Young performers revive youthful works by Mendelssohn, Haydn

by Julie Amacher, Minnesota Public Radio
August 31, 2010

St. Paul, Minn. — According to violinist Gil Shaham, performing Mendelssohn's Octet with the skilled musicians of Sejong Soloists is "like playing basketball with seven Michael Jordans." Gil Shaham recently released a new recording with the New York-based Sejong Soloists, a conductor-less string orchestra.

Artistic Director Hyo Kang, with whom Shaham studied at Juilliard, envisioned this chamber group made up of young musicians from nine different nations, as a "cultural ambassador." Their reputation is built on the ensemble's cohesiveness and their refreshing musical style. Under Gil Shaham's direction, they perform two early Violin Concertos by Joseph Haydn and Felix Mendelssohn's Octet with a strong sense of intensity and intimacy.

Felix Mendelssohn was a perfectionist. When he completed his ground-breaking Octet at the age of 12 in 1825, he wasn't satisfied. He continued to revise the work, finally allowing it to be published six years later. The performance heard on this new recording with Gil Shaham and Sejong Soloists blends the composer's final version with aspects of the original version which earned Mendelssohn instant fame as a young teen.

In the first movement of this Octet, the youthful energy and playfulness Mendelssohn intended is heard in the buoyant rhythms and soaring melodic lines. Gil Shaham explains their overall approach to the Octet, saying, "the faster tempo markings and the attention to staccato articulation in Mendelssohn's own handwriting persuaded us to try to conjure up a magical spirit world conveyed in Shakespeare's 'A Midsummer's Night Dream,' and Goethe's 'Faust,' both works that greatly fired the young composer's imagination." The perpetual light rhythms in the scherzo create a hypnotic, mysterious atmosphere. There's also something mesmerizing about the finale, as Gil Shaham and Sejong Soloists spin through it with great precision.

The faster tempos of Mendelssohn's early Octet were heavily influenced by Joseph Haydn, who died the year Mendelssohn was born. Both composers shared a passion for life which is heard in the works featured on this new release. Haydn composed four violin concertos. The two heard on this recording were composed when he was in his 30's, a time Haydn called his "extended youthful period" as a composer.

The concerto in C Major was composed for Luigi Tomasini, one of the rising stars of Haydn's time and the concert master of the Esterhazy Orchestra where Haydn worked for most of his career. Haydn included ornamental virtuosic double-stops to showcase Tomasini's skill. Superstar Gil Shaham breezes through the technically challenging first movement, accentuating its youthful essence. Shaham's beautiful tone and lyrical phrasing take center stage in the tender Adagio.

The slow second movement also stands out in the Violin Concerto in G Major. This concerto is not as technically demanding for the soloist as the C major concerto, allowing the performer to focus on the soaring melodic lines and beautiful singing phrases, two things at which Shaham truly excels. The unmistakable beauty of this work is captured in the luscious violin duet.

Gil Shaham and Sejong Soloists toured extensively before making this recording, really getting to know these youthful works of Mendelssohn and Haydn. That level of commitment allows them to bring out the most touching and the most uplifting side of these two young geniuses.

(This is an encore broadcast of New Classical Tracks from June 23, 2010).

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