Music

Collector Albi Rosenthal’s keen eye gives concerto a rebirth

Albi Rosenthal.
Albi Rosenthal.

Next weekend, the Handel and Haydn Society Orchestra, directed by concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky, performs Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’s rarely heard Violin Concerto in D minor, composed when Mendelssohn was around 13. That the concerto gets performed at all is largely because of Yehudi Menuhin, who gave its modern premiere in 1952 and edited it for publication. But Menuhin only learned of the concerto — and acquired the original manuscript — from the celebrated bookseller, dealer, scholar, and collector Albi Rosenthal.

Rosenthal was born in Munich in 1914. His vocation was seeded by family connections — grandfathers on both sides sold art and books — and a pair of gifts. He received his most prized possession, a violin, at 7; for his 21st birthday, his mother bought him the foundation of his collection, an autographed Mozart letter. (According to Rosenthal, his father, Erwin, initially balked at the price, but relented after attending a party where another guest showed off a hat purchased for an identical amount.)

Emigrating from Nazi Germany, Erwin Rosenthal secured a job for his son with the Warburg Institute, also newly relocated to London. Rosenthal refashioned himself into an art historian. But the lure of rare books led him to found his own company, in 1936. In 1955, he bought the firm of Otto Haas, becoming the world’s leading music manuscript dealer. (The firm is now run by Rosenthal’s daughter Julia.)

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His interests were wide. His own collecting focused on the disparate trio of Mozart, Monteverdi, and Friedrich Nietzsche (Rosenthal married the daughter of Oscar Levy, who edited the first English edition of Nietzsche’s works). He rediscovered the famous “La Clayette” manuscript, a massive 13th-century collection containing a cache of previously-unknown medieval motets. He negotiated the rococo legal and familial tangles of the posthumous sale of Igor Stravinsky’s manuscripts. He once alerted the Bibliotheque Nationale to the presence of forged letters in a Berlioz exhibit by sending the director a postcard reading “The following letters were not written by me” and signing Berlioz’s name. The violin was a constant companion, and he was a longtime member of the Oxford University Orchestra. (Oxford also made Rosenthal an honorary Master of Arts.)

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Rosenthal, who died in 2004, collected as many compliments as manuscripts: friendly, enthusiastic, immensely cultured, the very model of a music antiquarian. “It was always a delight,” one academic fan wrote, “to pay his [somewhat steep] prices.”

The Handel and Haydn Society Orchestra, directed by Aisslinn Nosky, performs music by Handel, J.S. Bach, C. P. E. Bach, and Mendelssohn on Friday, April 4, at 8 p.m., at Jordan Hall and Sunday, April 6, at 3 p.m. at Sanders Theatre (tickets $20-$84; handelandhaydn.org).

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.