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Mendelssohn Puts Out New Release Musicologist Orchestrates Piano Compositions Written Late In Composer’s Life

If old rock acts like the Beatles can keep putting out records by mining their archives, why not a classical composer like Mendelssohn?

A piano composition he started in the early 1840s, but never finished, was discovered at Oxford and polished up by a North Carolina music professor.

“We’re about to learn that Mendelssohn is as great a composer as Mozart, Bach and Beethoven,” said Kurt Masur, music director of the New York Philharmonic, who is conducting the piece as part of a music festival marking the 150th anniversary of Mendelssohn’s death.

Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy was considered one of the most successful musicians of his day, winning fame with such works as the dazzling overture to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

But much of what he composed he never published.

“He was hypercritical,” said R. Larry Todd, a musicologist at Duke University.

Todd discovered the first two movements for what would have been Mendelssohn’s third piano concerto almost 20 years ago at Oxford’s Bodleian Library.

The handwritten pages, dating from about 1842-44, were only partially orchestrated. Mendelssohn apparently set them aside to work on his famous Violin Concerto in E minor, which shares a lot of the same thematic material, and never got back to the earlier composition.

Believing the concerto-in-progress was “substantial enough … so that it deserves to be heard,” Todd put the pieces together, filled in some missing parts and completed the orchestration.

“It’s a fragment, not a complete work,” Todd said by telephone from Durham, N.C. “On the other hand, it’s by Mendelssohn, and rather late in his life.”

The composition was to premier Friday night at Leipzig’s famed Gewandhaus Orchestra.

Masur - who serves as honorary conductor at the Leipzig house where Mendelssohn himself was music director in the mid-19th century - said he was initially skeptical about the 12-minute piece.

But after reading the score, he was intrigued enough to try it out - and liked what he heard, even without a third and final movement.

“Its ending for me is like musically going to heaven,” Masur said before rehearsals Thursday at the Gewandhaus.

At a preview, when the piano and violin concertos were played back to back, audiences seemed to agree. “It was a perfect couple,” Masur said.

And he and Todd hope the piece will help change Mendelssohn’s current reputation as a passionless classicist, “an elegant and nice-sounding composer, but without the depth of Beethoven,” as Masur put it.