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Learn to obey the speed limits in Mendelssohn's E minor Violin Concerto

"IT HAS BEEN BUTCHERED and malplayed by so many people, it's time somebody pleaded the composer's case," declares violinist Vincent Skowronski. "This is not a soccer match or a hockey game. It's a very nice piece of music to play."

Skowronski is defending the honor and integrity of Felix Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E minor. It's a popular work that is arguably played too often, and in Skowronski's opinion, too early and too fast.

REFINED: Felix Mendelssohn

"When you're a student," he says, "after the Vivaldi A major, and after one of the five Mozart concertos, you are immediately thrust upon the shoulders of Mr. Mendelssohn. I think young violinists get this piece way too early in their careers, because they approach it as their first meaty concerto, the first thing Grandma would actually like to hear, and they're taught to play it 'impressively,' at breakneck speed.

"Yet Mendelssohn was a very refined, erudite composer; he was not a crasher and banger."

Skowronski became sensitized to the speed issue as a young man in New York City. "I went to hear Ruggiero Ricci play the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto because I had recently worked on it and Ricci was one of the great virtuosos," he recalls. "It was so fast and so out of control I thought Ricci had a plane to catch. From that time on, every time I heard the Mendelssohn I paid attention to the speed the violinist would take, and across the board, every violinst I've heard plays it way, way too fast."

"In the 1950s, Ray Still was the principal oboist of the Chicago Symphony. One day he had to complain to [conductor] Fritz Reiner, 'Can't you talk to Mr. Heifetz and tell him it's almost impossible to double- tongue at the speed he takes the last movement?' He couldn't double- tongue that fast, and Ray Still was one of the fine, fine oboists."

"People just tear through that thing, and I don't think it's necessary at all, not to mention that it's harmful."

The Concerto Refined
Skowronski asserts that the true character of the concerto reflects Mendelssohn's own character and milieu.

"Mendelssohn came from a very
well-to-do family. He was raised with people like Goethe and the great thinkers of the time coming to visit," he says.

"He was refined. Even his physiognomy was refined. What he wrote was refined. So why brutalize the concerto?"

"Among violinists, if you like to chop wood and want to play Mendelssohn, you have to compromise in the middle and not beat the hell out of it."

"If you like to chop wood and you want to play Mendelssohn, you have to compromise in the middle and not beat the hell out of it."

Skowronski observes that the portion most subject to brutalization is the first-movement cadenza. "If you ask your average man on the street, what is a cadenza," he says, "nine out of ten will say it's a piece of a concerto in which you can do anything you want. Well, it's not. In the case of this concerto, the composer notated it himself and had a good idea what he wanted from people. According to legend he was a hell of a violinist, and he knew what he was doing.

"He starts off going up by arpeggios and ascending scales, always ending on E-natural, so you have no mistake what key it's in. Then he gets to the marvelous trill section, which everyone mistakenly thinks should be done as fast as the last page of the Saint-Saens Rondo Capriccioso. Mendelssohn has taken away all the 8th and 16th notes, and now he writes only half-notes with trills."

"If you take the tempo you have established in the first part of the cadenza and translate it to the half-note notation, the trill section will not be as fast as people play it; they play it as if those were eighth notes."

"After that, with the arpeggios and spiccato, speed is ridiculous, because when the oboe comes in and states the theme, the theme would have to be three times as fast as the beginning of the concerto. That simply is not right."

"Milstein, when he came to the bariolage section leading up to the recapitulation, took it so fast it was laughable. It was machine-gun stuff. Any conductor should say it's not that fast, but you don't argue with the likes of Heifetz and Milstein and those boys."

"So basically the piece gets faster and faster and you get to the point where you can't play it."

Proper Tempo
Skowronski insists that the proper tempo relationships are specified in the score for all to see.

"Where the trills begin," he says, "someone has written 'Tempo I.' I can only assume that comes from the pen of Mendelssohn. It means you have to go back to the beginning of the concerto, and what you took for a tempo primo at that time. You must try to replicate that in this section."

"If you start the concerto like a bat out of hell, that's what you do here. If you use a more sensible tempo at the beginning, you return to it here."

"No matter what, the trills will sound terribly slow. So if you write in 'poco a poco accelerando' or 'stringendo' to indicate, 'Look out, folks, we're gonna have a beginning and middle and end to this section,' it takes a marvelous shape, through many brief modulations."

"Finally you arrive at that high E-natural harmonic, which you hope you can hold forever. After that, there are no tempo markings. So if you have accomplished a dramatic accelerando to the finale of the trill section, when the bariolage section starts you go back to Tempo I; by the time you reach the oboe theme you're back to the tempo where you started the whole thing."

Skowronski hesitates to recommend any recordings that demonstrate what he's talking about. And although the concerto was once one of his specialties, he doesn't play it anymore. "I want to remember how I did it the way I wanted to do it when I did it," he says.

"Don't look to other violinists for good examples," he insists; "take your inspiration from what Mendelssohn wrote in the score."

Avec et Sans Vol. II
SKOWRONSKI says: "It's a victim of speed and lack of refinement."

"It's a classy concerto, or it should be," he says. "Unfortunately, I have rarely heard it in the classy vein; it's always at the virtuoso, let's-beat-it-to-death, crash-crunch level. It's a victim of speed and lack of refinement."

"To play this concerto the way Mendelssohn wrote it, you have to battle the majority of violinists who just want to make fast notes, play in tune, and convince people that this is all music should be."

Re: Mendelssohn's Cadenza to the Concerto in E Minor

When approaching this piece, it helps to remember that it is a work of refinement, not a race to the finish. Choose reasonable tempos and heed the composer's markings.

The first-movement cadenza is the section most often abused by overzealous players, according to Vincent Skowronski, so make sure to pay attention to the wishes of Mendelssohn that are notated in the music. The trill section will seem slow: focus on giving it shape. Skowronski suggests writing "poco a poco accelerando" or "stringendo" in this section to keep focused on giving it a beginning, middle, and end.

If you resist the impulse to speed through this work, you'll find at its heart much more than just a piece built to impress audiences with breakneck speed and spot-on intonation. Instead, you'll find yourself playing, as Skowronski attests, a very "classy" concerto. --Megan Westberg, Managing Editor, Strings Magazine

Article by James Reel, Strings Magazine, March 2007.

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