Depending on whom you ask, Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel (1805-47) may have been as musically gifted as her younger brother Felix. Direct comparisons are not possible because Fanny never pursued a public career in music, a fact often blamed on her brother or her father, who famously wrote to her at age 15: “Music will perhaps become a profession for him [Felix], while for you it will and should always be only an ornament, never the foundation of your being and doing.”
He was of course channeling the norms of the time, which saw no place for a wealthy woman in the vulgar domains of commerce and the professions. For her part, Fanny hardly let that stop her from building a rich life in music that pushed the boundaries of what was possible for women of the era. Specifically, she went on to compose prolifically, and to establish a fantastically successful musical salon in Berlin, where she played piano and conducted, often presenting her own works or those of her brother. Liszt and Gounod are known to have dropped by to listen. After her death, she was hailed in the press as “an artist in the most exalted sense of the word.”
These days Fanny’s songs and chamber works occasionally turn up on programs but her sole orchestral work — an Overture in C major — is spotted far more rarely. It made an excellent choice as a curtain-raiser for the siblings Mendelssohn concert performed on Saturday night by the Boston Classical Orchestra. Written in her mid-20s, the piece, offered in a lively account here, shows deft craftsmanship, fresh ideas, and vital rhythmic energy, even if it gives only a hint of the symphonist she might have become.
BOSTON CLASSICAL ORCHESTRA
In a similar spirit, Felix’s own Symphony No. 1 was a well-chosen companion work on Saturday’s program, written when he was just 15. The early maturity of Felix’s art outshines that of music’s most celebrated prodigies, Mozart included, and before tackling this piece he had already written an entire collection of string symphonies. Even so, in the Symphony No. 1, the mastery and delicacy of his Octet, written just one year later, had not yet crystallized. And in a way, this piece makes for fascinating listening precisely because of that fact — one can observe the composer’s vaunted later-teenage brilliance just as it is coming into focus.
In practice, what the BCO and its music director Steven Lipsitt have working both for and against them is their home in Faneuil Hall. The intimacy of this space, and the history that exudes from its walls, surely make it a draw for the orchestra’s subscribers. But its extremely challenging acoustics tend to blur the sound and make essential dynamic subtleties and textural detailing an elusive goal. Still, there was no mistaking the energy of Saturday’s playing. Conducting from memory, Lipsitt led a committed, vigorous, and often driving performance of this early score.
Between these two rarely heard works came Felix Mendelssohn’s celebrated Violin Concerto, in a technically assured reading by soloist Irina Muresanu. Ensemble work was approximate as Muresanu bolted through the finale, seemingly privileging speed above all else. But judging by the thrilled response from Saturday’s crowd, this concerto hit its mark.