BBC Music Magazine’s Q & A

The American conductor talks with Daniel Jaffé about recapturing Mendelssohn’s youthful inspiration

How is it that you're recording these symphonies with a Norwegian orchestra?

Robert Suff [BIS’s recording producer] said “I’ve always loved your Mendelssohn Midsummer Night’s Dream recording.” I said “Are you serious?” because it was a one-off I’d recorded in the ’80s with the London Philharmonic. But he said “We would really like you to do a Mendelssohn cycle.” So I went back to those works, not approaching them in a completely different way because making a recording is like a legacy statement; and I just fell in love again with their inventiveness, the genius behind so many of the melodies, the slight turn of harmony so you go from joy to joy to absolute poignancy in a heartbeat. Also, as Robert said, the Bergen has the ability to play this repertoir very well – I just love the players’ flexibility: it’s a very international orchestra – at least 40 percent of the players are not Norwegian, so there’s a completely open approach and an approach to music for it’s own sake rather than through a ’tradition‘.

I’ve particularly enjoyed listening to your recording of the First.

It’s amazing - Mendelssohn composed it when 15 years old, and sure, it’s completely derivative but it’s about how you put things together, not originality. And there’s just some wonderful effects; some critics have found his use of pizzicato in the last movement risible, but I think that’s the whole point – it makes you smile. I think all the emotions that made him such a great composer are present in this early work and it’s just fun to treat it like this is a Beethoven or Schubert through Mendelssohn’s eyes and use that as a launching pad because that of course was the world in which he was growing up.

What change in approach did you take to these symphonies? 

A lot of it is tempo decisions; you’ve got to find the energy that someone barely past his adolescence would have had, otherwise they risk becoming portentous, especially No. 1. But if you treat it the right way, it’s absolutely delightful, brilliant music.

Read the entire review in the February 2010 issue of BBC Music Magazine.

This interview was first printed in the February 2010 issue ofBBC Music Magazine. Copyright © 2010 BBC Music Magazine. All rights reserved.