My path with art to the 18th Mendelssohn Music Week (Musikwoche) concert in Wengen
My four-month odyssey across Europe has certainly pulled out some great surprises, not least, a little music festival celebrating Mendelssohn, in a protestant church with the most incredible mountain views, in Switzerland. Let me tell you the back-story.
Hopkinson Smith and Wengen
A couple of years ago, when I could attend concerts without paperwork and a mask, I reviewed a stunning concert for Classic Melbourne, Hopkinson Smith, lute master. His encore piece was by Mendelssohn, and he described it as being arranged for a festival in Bern.
Mendelssohn’s music, for some reason, has always struck a chord for me (scuse the pun of course). Everything from A midsummer night’s dream, that I got to sing with the Flinders Street chorale, Adelaide Chamber Singers and conducted by Christopher Hogwood, to his unmistakable choral works that I played on 3MBS Choral Masterworks, and his Octet in E-flat major, Op. 20 played with Aurora Strings eons ago. Plus, for me the other mark of quality was that he was possibly responsible for the ‘modern’ re-discovery of Bach. I’ve always felt personally grateful to him.
Sitting in my room on Friday night after a second week of WWoofing, in a tiny farming community near Bern, I was working on my website and re-read my review. I was curious about when and where this festival might be. A quick internet search turned up this year’s offering in a tiny village called Wengen, on the side of a mountain. The next day was the final concert, the Bennewitz Quartet. Perfect timing. That’s Switzerland.
Having a great contact in Switzerland for all things rail, I found out about a deal through coop (a supermarket chain), where you can travel all day on public transport for just 49 francs. That sounds like a lot of money for an Australian, but when you consider a ticket from Bern to Basel is 41 francs, you can see that you could have a very cost-effective path with art. And I did.
Getting to the Mendelssohn Music Week concert in Wengen
A short 20 minute trip into Bern, a morning at the Historiche Museum, some watercolour paint shopping at the fabulous Lachenmeier Fabern, and then train to Interlaken Ost, a quick trip on the Lötschberg on lake Brienz, a bus trip back to Interlaken, then Lauterbrunnen, then thrill of thrills, a cable car of sorts up to Wengen. The 11 minute trip up was literally breathtaking, with views of distant James-Bond cable cars on the other side of the valley, cliffs, glaciers, waterfalls and peaks. At 1274 metres, in Wengen the views down to the Lauterbrunnen valley below were real Heidi country, as mum would say.
But I’m indulging. “What about the music?” you ask. The music started a while before 5:30pm with the church bells peeling for several minutes, but once inside the simple chapel, decorated only by three enormous arrangements of sunflowers, looked over by the previous Sunday’s hymns and some interesting icons on the pulpit, the be-suited quartet were greeted with hearty applause from the crowd of about a hundred, speaking a lot of English.
The Bennewitz Quartet
As the sun was busy hiding behind magnificent mountains, and with a nod arguably to the inventor of the string quartet as we know it, the Bennewitz Quartet, respectfully dressed in black and white, were off to a lively start with Haydn’s String Quartet in G major,Op. 17 No 5 Hob III:29. The quartets’ instruments were sonorous and rich and even nine rows back, I could feel their resonance. Or is it just that it has been so long since I heard live music?
The elegant interpretation included deft playing by Jakub Fiser, first violinst, in the first movement, Moderato. The joking Menuetto-Trio with a minor section and trill seeming to clash between cello/viola and high drama in the Adagio with unison passages nevertheless reflected the delightful simplicity of the ‘reformierte kirche’. The three stained-glass windows, wooden floors and cushioned pews perfectly adapted for chamber music. The fourth movement, Presto, was lively with trills, turns and octave leaps for the cello.
Stepan Jezek, second violin reminded us that Haydn took the quartet from time-passing, playable music to a form where all parts had to contribute to a very high level. Given I had spent two weeks pondering Goethe’s colour theory at the Goetheanum at the beginning of August, when Stepan quoted Goethe’s description of a string quartet as “four rational people conversing”, I pricked up my ears and my whole trip was starting to round out nicely. On researching, the interesting connection here is that Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote this to Carl Friedrich Zelter, whose pupil was none other than Felix Mendelssohn. While Hadyn wrote sixty-four quartets, the next composer on the program wrote two.
Chosen for the theme of love at the end of Janacek’s life, juxtaposed with Mendelssohn’s quartet later in the program for 18-year-old love, the String Quartet No. 2, Intimate Letters speaks of his passionate, 74 year-old version of love for Kamila Stosslova. Vigorous trills with harmonics are passed between instruments in the Andante and the players were really beginning to shine in what I would describe as more emphatic than passionate musical content. In the second movement Adagio-Presto-Grave, it becomes clear that Janacek really loved the tone of the viola as Jiri Pinkas started the theme, then passed it to the second violin. The skipping and serious third movement explores yet more territory, and the fourth movement Allegro had a folk influence accompanied by tempestuousness. Plucking chords were played masterfully by the second violinist for a romantic finish. It was energetic and passionate playing by the quartet evoking an ‘Encore’ from the audience. It was only the middle of the concert!
I’m not sure whether I’d known it before, but Mendelssohn was a walker. And he had a path with art too. On the 21st August, 1842, he walked from Interlaken and sketched Wengen from above, one of the only sketches dating from this time. A Mendelssohn memorial now stands in this place.
Whereas Beethoven had just been born when the first quartet on the program was written, he had recently died when the final quartet of Mendelssohn’s came into being. And as Stepan mentioned, Mendelssohn was greatly influenced by Beethoven’s late quartets, much to his father’s dismay. When he was 18, Mendelssohn had fallen in love with Betty who lived on his street in Berlin. He wrote a poem for her that he turned into a song, ‘Ist es wahr?’ ‘Is it true?’ Fragments of this are spread throughout his String Quartet in A minor, op 13, and then more fully in the end.
In the opening Adagio-Allegro Vivace, the presence of the cellist, Stepan Dolezal became integral and reassuring. The fugue-like second movement is perhaps a nod to the master, with Bach-like patterns and figures. The last note sans vibrato was a little piece of magic. And then the Intermezzo, third movement, the most beautiful, tentative and delightful, folk-like theme with pizzicato accompaniment; Mendelssohn at his best and most popular. Moving into the Allegretto con moto-Allegro di molto it almost feels like we’ve circled back to Haydn again and with counterpoint Bach would be proud of. The viola featured again with long-held, confident notes. The Finale, Presto – Adagio non lento perhaps mirrors the tremolo in the Janacek and a fugue gaves way to the tender song to finish.
The audience were enthusiastic in their applause, and the Bennewitz Quartet were finally enticed back to the stage for an encore. In keeping with the simple, yet profound surroundings and the chorale-like opening of Mendelssohn’s quartet, they chose Bach’s Chorale No 68, ‘Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern’, or ‘How brightly shines the morning star’, played, once again, with a magical last note.
On emerging from the concert, the sun was still working its magic on the distant clouds and the only walk I would have to do was back to the mountain train for my return trip. I didn’t have to continue up the little railway to the Jungfraujoch, the ‘top of Europe’ as I was already feeling on the top of the world.
If the final concert of this festival is anything to go by, no doubt the 2023 festival has much to recommend it. The dates have already been chosen and the program set. My path with art might need to lead me back to it.
SBB – By Train from Interlakken Ost to Lauterbrunnen, then to Wengen
Mendelssohn Music Week (Musikwoche)
Would you like to join me on some ‘paths with art’ in Switzerland 2023?
Wengen offers several 30 – 60 minute walks along the mountain to viewing points offering spectacular views of the Lauterbrunnen valley towards Interlakken.
How would you like to take daily ambles in the summer sunshine to sketch these fantastic mountain views while taking in world-class music in the evenings?
Register your interest in attending this concert series in 2023, and sign up to hear more.
I’ll meet you there.
Walk and sketch Wengen
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