Mendelssohn Complete Works for Piano and Orchestra

Jean Louis Steuerman
Moscow Chamber Orchestra
Constantine Orbelian

Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1 in G minor, Op. 25
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 2 in D minor, Op. 40
Capriccio brillant in B minor, Op. 22 / 11:38
Serenade and Allegro giocoso in B minor, Op. 43 / 12:12
Rondo brillant in E flat, Op. 29 / 11:38

Felix Mendelssohn was the most precociously gifted composer the world has ever known -- not even Mozart can lay claim to having produced "mature" masterpieces whilst still in his mid-to-late teens. By the time he was 16, Mendelssohn had already composed his masterly String Octet, and had also proved himself a double prodigy on the violin and piano, an exceptional athlete (and a particularly strong swimmer), a talented poet (Goethe was a childhood friend and confidante), multi-linguist, watercolourist, and philosopher. He excelled at virtually anything which could hold his attention for long enough, although it was music which above all activated his creative imagination.

Mendelssohn was both a musical beginning and an end. His Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream (1826) can be seen as the earliest positive declaration of the new Romantic movement in music, yet when Mendelssohn died in 1847, so the post-Mozartian age of Classicism was extinguished. (It was left to Johannes Brahms to continue the Beethovenian lineage.) If occasionally Mendelssohn overstretched himself, he was also capable of structural sleights-of-hand, particularly during sonata-form first movements, which more often than not embrace revelatory codas. Only Beethoven can be considered Mendelssohn's equal in this respect.

One of the most astute and accurate character sketches of Mendelssohn ever penned came from no less an authority than Sir George Grove in the first edition of his famous Dictionary published in 1878:

His hands were small, with tapered fingers. On the keys they behaved like living and intelligent creatures, full of life and sympathy. His action at the piano was as free from affectation as everything else that he did, and very interesting. At times, especially at the organ, he leant very much over the keys, as if watching for the strains which came out of his finger tips. He sometimes swayed from side to side, but usually his whole performance was quiet and absorbed.

Mendelssohn's earliest surviving attempt at concerto composition is his 1822 D minor Violin Concerto, a remarkably accomplished work in three movements which clearly demonstrates the 13-year-old's advanced understanding of late Classical style. The A minor Piano Concerto of the same year, and the D minor Violin and Piano Concerto of 1823 continue this trend, though with rather less melodic spontaneity and structural distinction. More interestingly, however, are the two Double Piano Concertos in E (1823) and A flat (1824) respectively, whose brilliant solo writing, gently flowing slow movements, and sparkling finales are clearly premonitory of things to come.

The G minor Piano Concerto, Op. 25 of 1831, composed in its essentials in a matter of days, established Mendelssohn as a master of concerto form once and for all. All three movements run without a break, fused together by a fanfare-like passage which form links with the central Andante and the finale. The normal lengthy orchestral introduction and solo cadenzas are dispensed with altogether -- another of Mendelssohn's gentle revolutions. The piano writing is glitteringly virtuosic, especially throughout the last movement with its breathless surge of semiquaver acrobatics. The ghosts of Hummel, Moscheles, and particularly Weber drift over the proceedings from time to time, continually enlivened by Mendelssohn's inimitable light touch and deft scoring.

The Second Piano Concerto in D minor, Op. 40 of 1837, was written at a similarly furious pace, just in time for one of Mendelssohn's celebrated appearances in England. Once again the three movements follow each other promptly, and if it is less immediately impactful than the First Concerto, it is arguably the more subtle of the two, the finale in particular gaining from its gentler, more relaxed atmosphere. Once again the interplay between soloist and orchestra continually delights the ear, and the fizzing combination of virtuoso high spirits and music of a more reflective nature is highly compelling.

Although rarely encountered in concert programmes nowadays, Mendelssohn also composed three smaller concertante works for piano and orchestra. The most popular by some distance is the Weberesque Capriccio brillant, Op. 22, composed during a trip to England in the spring of 1832. The work opens with a touching slow introduction led by the soloist, after which the piano hurtles along in a flurry of notes, only relaxing momentarily for the appearance of the march-like second theme. Economically scored, the piano remains predominant throughout, underlined by a dramatically compelling coda.

The Rondo brillant, Op. 29 (1834), is very similar in style to its popular predecessor, although here the vivacious high spirits and pianistic glitter fail to enliven material which can hardly be said to show Mendelssohn at his most creatively fertile. Rather finer although almost totally neglected, is the Serenade and Allegro giocoso, Op. 43 of 1838, a highly attractive work whose con fuoco passage-work sets up an exhilarating race to the end.

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