Photo of conductor Manfred Honeck.

Mahler and Mendelssohn

  1. Violin Concerto
  2. Symphony No. 5
  1. Manfred Honeck conductor
  2. Maria Dueñas violin

Manfred Honeck conducts Mahler’s fifth symphony and Mendelssohn’s violin concerto with Maria Dueñas.

Manfred Honeck conducts Mahler’s dark, powerful and majestic Symphony No. 5. The symphony is a world of and unto itself, demonstrating a colossal span in terms of style and expression, the sublime Adagietto being an unforgettable highlight. A bright young talent, the sixteen year old Maria Dueñas, performs Mendelssohn’s violin concerto.

The opening bars of Mahler’s fifth symphony leave little doubt that Beethoven’s ghost hovers above the grandiose, overwhelming march which introduces Gustav Mahler’s (1860−1911) work. The rhythmical knocking motive was to become an important part of Mahler’s musical development. The second movement picks up on the pain of the first movement, but exchanges a heavy sorrow with a chaotic, intense drama. The two first movements make up one of three unified parts of the symphony. The remaining part consists of solely one movement. It is both the longest and most unique part of the symphony, and is one of Mahler’s most curious masterpieces. Revealing a mastery of counterpoint and exceptionally inventive abilities of orchestration, the composer juxtaposes a folksy ländler with an urban waltz, everything adding up to a higher symphonic unity.

As a strong contrast to the chaotic and spectacularly colourful third movement, the irresistably sentimental Adagietto which follows represents one of Mahler’s most famous symphonic movements. The orchestra is stripped down to strings and harps, and its character is completely changed. The conductor Willem Mengelberg was convinced that the gripping movement expressed Mahler’s love for his wife, Alma, whom he had met just before embarking on the composition of the fifth symphony. In the finale the counterpoint and the kaleidoscope of sound from the third movement returns, now in life-affirming bursts of energy.

Mahler composed his fifth symphony mostly in 1901 and 1902. Not only had he just met, and become engaged to Alma, but he had himself just recovered from a serious illness, and his career was just about to take off. We might easily imagine that the symphony, its trajectory constructed from darkness to light, reflected this positive development in the composer’s personal life when it was performed for the first time in Cologne in 1904. Today it is a firm audience favourite among Mahler’s symphonies.

Another firm popular favourite is Felix Mendelssohn’s (1809−1847) Violin Concerto. It is considered by many to be one of the 19th century’s most successful solo concertos, thanks to its melodic inventiveness, virtuosic playfulness, and elegance of orchestration. Besides, it contains just enough bravura to be a real challenge for the soloist, but without the solo voice becoming overwhelming. Today, this is the concerto every violinist simply must play, whether they are students or renowned soloists.

Without hesitation, the soloist casts herself into a passionate, insisting and beautifully melodious song above the orchestra’s restless accompaniment. After some cadenza-like cascades in the solo voice, the melody is repeated in the orchestra, and the musical game and drama begins. The direct and appealing, but also dramatic first movement links directly to the lyrical second movement through a lonely bassoon voice. Here, the violin soloist gets an even greater opportunity to shine. The third movement opens tentatively, feeling its way forwards before the tempo accelerates and Mendelssohn shows himself at his most lively and humorous in the fiery finale − the game between orchestra and soloist a whirlwind of energy.

In the course of the writing process, Mendelssohn had regular contact with his friend, the renowned violinist, Ferdinand David, and already in 1838 he wrote to David that he was thinking of composing a violin concerto in E Minor, and that ideas for the opening of this “would not leave him alone”. David made suggestions underway, and the violin concerto was first performed in Leipzig in 1845 with David as the soloist, and Danish Niels Gade conducting. Since then, the concerto has proved itself to be a timeless work, and audiences have never tired of listening to it.

It’s no surprise that Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto has been a frequently performed work throughout the history of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra. The work was performed already in the orchestra’s very first season, in 1919/1920, and has been a permanent part of its core repertoire since then. It is perhaps less obvious that the music of Mahler also found its way into the orchestra’s programmes early on. The year 1919 was only eight years after Mahler’s death, and his compositions were still very much disputed both in Europe and in Norway. The orchestra, spearheaded by their Principal Conductor Georg Schneevoigt, still wished to perform several of Mahler’s symphonies in the first seasons. In 1925 they programmed Mahler’s fifth symphony for the first time. It evoked mixed feelings among public and press. An excerpt by composer David Monrad Johansen’s review in Aftenposten following the performance, reveals some of the confusion which prevailed amongst Norwegian critics and musical personalities as they came face to face with Mahler’s gigantic creations:

“There has seldom been a greater discrepancy in a composer between the desire to create art and the ability to do so. And this manifests itself in a most curious way. Never before in the history of music can one discern a greater discrepancy betwen form and content, with an even greater discrepancy between ability and performance, and where freedom of form is to this extent confused with lack of form.”

(David Monrad Johansen, Aftenposten, 3.11.1925)

(Text: Thomas Erma Møller; Translation  from Norwegian: Sarah Osa; In photo: Manfred Honeck; Photo: Felix Broede)

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Tickets

  • Adult: 120 - 490 NOK
  • Senior: 120 - 395 NOK
  • Student: 120 - 245 NOK
  • Child: 120 NOK
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