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Anne-Sophie Mutter's Immortal Mendelssohn

Violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter calls Felix Mendelssohn's music "immortal." And she's not saying that just because she's released a new CD of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto, or just because it happens to be the 200th anniversary of the German composer's birth on Feb. 3.

Mutter says she has enormous respect for Mendelssohn. She's played his music for most of her career, having made her first recording of the concerto almost 30 years ago.

For her new disc, Mutter traveled to Mendelssohn's old stomping ground, Leipzig, to the site where the concerto premiered in 1845. She wanted to record the piece with the Gewandhaus Orchestra, a group Mendelssohn himself molded into one of the slickest symphonic ensembles in Europe.

Mutter says that the Leipzig musicians "not only play together; they also feel together and breathe together." It's important, she says, for a piece like the Violin Concerto, which contains all the ingredients of "immortal" music.

"Passion, virtuosity, purity of expression," Mutter says, are a few of those ingredients. Also, "depth of emotion and an unconditional surrender to the musical expression. It is a stroke of genius."

Like Mendelssohn himself, Mutter has a penchant for chamber music. For the new record, she's teamed up with pianist Andre Previn for Mendelssohn's Violin Sonata in F, and adds cellist Lynn Harrell to the mix for the Piano Trio No. 1.

Wavering Reputation

In his day, Felix Mendelssohn was a star. He was beloved in London — he dedicated his "Scottish" Symphony to the Queen — as well as across his native Germany. He gave us the "Wedding March," the Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream, the "Italian" Symphony, a stunning Octet written at the age of 16, and much more exquisitely crafted music.

But Mendelssohn's reputation has fluctuated over the years. Now, as the classical world celebrates the 200th anniversary of his birth with concerts and new recordings, it might be time for a reassessment.

Mendelssohn has weathered bad press. Some critics complain that his peak came too early, in pieces such as the Octet and the Midsummer Night's Dream Overture, and that he never again matched the greatness he'd demonstrated as a teenager. Others cite a certain routine, even lightweight, perfection in his music — perhaps a lack of nerve to push the envelope.

Speculators wonder whether Mendelssohn's don't-rock-the-boat attitude, at least musically, came from his upbringing. His parents were well-to-do Jewish, but to ensure smooth sailing in society, they raised their children as Lutherans, baptized them and added the less Jewish-sounding surname Bartholdy.

Mendelssohn's reputation suffered another blow, posthumously, when the influential anti-Semite Richard Wagner singled him out in a scandalous article titled "Judaism in Music." Decades later, Mendelssohn was on the list of banned composers in Nazi Germany.

Mendelssohn's Comeback

In a recent Bloomberg.com article, Robert Hilferty spotlights the efforts of the Mendelssohn Project, an organization launched in 1996 to revive the composer's music and reputation.

Along with organizing bicentennial concerts, the group has taken charge of gathering hundreds of manuscripts, letters and artworks (Mendelssohn was a gifted watercolorist) that were smuggled out of Nazi Germany and dispersed around the globe.

Thirteen world premieres of Mendelssohn works were presented in New York on Jan. 28. And, in Washington, D.C., a sampling of Mendelssohn's chamber music is presented in the series "Mendelssohn on the Mall."

And, of course, Anne-Sophie Mutter is doing her part. She's playing Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in San Francisco, New York, London and Oslo.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.