'The soft, stylish arpeggios that open the first work on the disc announce immediately that something special is on the way. Hough is now clearly first recommendation in the concertos' (Gramophone)
'You can tell this is special from the first chord … I don't think [Stephen Hough] has an equal on record in this music, even with competitors like Andras Schiff and Murray Perahia. Issues like this add to the feeling that the great Mendelssohn reappraisal is underway at last. It's long overdue' (The Independent)
'Once again we have Stephen Hough lavishing his exciting gifts upon a splendid Mendelssohn programme. I cannot envisage this splendidly recorded disc being absent from the year's honours list' (Classic CD)
'Glitteringly performed' (The Daily Mail)
'Biting intensity, yet with freer expressiveness and bigger contrasts he also brings out extra poetry and … a sparkling wit … A constant delight' (The Guardian)
'An impressive achievement all round' (Piano International)
'[Hough] can scamper with the best and is able to incorporate delightful capriciousness without derailing the flow of thought … These performances…boast of nearly ideal lightness, vivacity and impetus' (BBC Music Magazine)
'Hough’s pianism …is elegant, spirited and poetic, and well-attuned, too, to the swirling skittishness of the concertos' finales … Hough’s reading, as throughout this disc, is a joy' (Birmingham Post)
'Hough offers far greater elegance and plusher tone … Hough is, as always, a delight to listen to, such as in his quicksilver scattering of thirds in the last movement of the Second Concerto' (Fanfare)
'It should perhaps come as no surprise that Stephen Hough should prove so perfectly attuned to these works … if you opt for just a single recording, this would make an excellent first choice' (Gramophone)
'He is all fleet-fingered exhilaration in the outer movements and relaxes appealingly when the music turns inwards' (International Piano)
'Stephen Hough has the ideal qualities of sharp attention to rhythmic detail and an impeccable fluidity of line and phrase' (The Observer)
'Expressive playing from this fine soloist – one has to marvel at anyone who can take on those devilish tempos' (The Scotsman)
'Stephen Hough is, undoubtedly, one of the most elegant pianists before the public today … Hough does not fail to underscore this in the brilliant pyrotechnics' (Soundscapes)
'Stephen Hough searches out the lyrical essence of the music rather than going for glitz’ (Stereo Review)
'Stephen Hough is a player of formidable talent, capturing the essence and spirit of Mendelssohn’s driving enthusiasm and creative wonder' (Yorkshire Evening Post)
Molto Allegro con fuoco [7'15]
Allegro appassionato [9'09]
Adagio: Molto sostenuto [5'01]
Finale: Presto scherzando [6'52]
This disc brings together, for the first time to our knowledge, all of Mendelssohn's published works for piano and orchestra. Mendelssohn was regarded as one of the foremost pianists of his day, Clara Schumann describing him as 'the dearest pianist of all'. While his works for the instrument are by no means as numerous as those of, say, Liszt or Chopin, they are models of the nineteenth-century genre and filled with melodious charm.
The First Concerto is actually the earliest work on this disc, despite its opus number, and is the work that Liszt sight-read from a scribbled score to an astonished Mendelssohn when the two composers met in Paris. The Second Concerto saw its premiere— appropriately enough given the orchestra performing on this disc—in Birmingham during the festival of 1837. The remaining three works find Mendelssohn in light-hearted mood, showing off his knack for melody and unaffected charm to the full.
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This reminiscence of Mendelssohn by Ferdinand Hiller (1811–1885), a close friend and fellow composer of no mean ability, in his book Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy: Briefe und Erinnerungen (Cologne, 1874) is by no means unique in extolling Mendelssohn’s pianistic talents: ‘… For a few minutes I really could not restrain my tears. When all is said and done, he remains for me the dearest pianist of all’, wrote Clara Schumann to her husband.
In the modern imagination it is solely as a composer that Mendelssohn endures, and it is easy to assume that his executant talents, seemingly eclipsed by those of Liszt’s innovative generation, were actually more modest, not simply less sensational or histrionic. This is a considerable simplification of the truth, and when we pause to consider that our own time embodies a liberal artistic climate, allowing for the coexistence of many aesthetic trends and many degrees of stylistic retrospection, it should follow naturally that we think to examine an earlier age for similar signs of things moving out of step with one another.
Mendelssohn visited Paris in 1825, when he met Herz and Kalkbrenner, and again in 1831, when he made friends with Liszt and Chopin. Chopin, Schumann, Liszt and Mendelssohn all knew one another and there are myriad cross-references and apparent homages amongst their compositions: for example, the chorale-like theme in the finale of Mendelssohn’s Second Piano Trio occurs in only slightly condensed guise in Chopin’s Third Scherzo for piano solo. Chopin’s works certainly appealed to Mendelssohn more than those of Liszt, though Chopin too could strike him on occasion as musically eccentric. It seems reasonable to speculate that Mendelssohn’s pianistic taste sprang partially from his avid study of Bach and Baroque contrapuntal methods. In his string chamber output there is an abiding sense of ‘real voices’, of parts almost always conceived as independent rhythmic and melodic strands within the argument rather than as quasi-orchestral doublings of one another. This confers upon his music a sense of containment, of scale dependent upon the ebb and flow of fixed counterparts and their interplay, not on the more gratuitous rhetoric of reinforcements thrown easily into the fray. When one adds to this the Classical elements which he drew from Beethoven, and considers the inevitable shadow of Mozart (with whom he had been compared as a prodigy himself) it becomes possible to see that harnessing the indulgent freedom of Lisztian pyrotechnics to Mendelssohnian thought would have been much like inducing a Byron or a Baudelaire to paraphrase some characteristically wholesome passage by Wordsworth.
Capriccio Brillant Op 22: Despite its opus number the Capriccio was composed after the First Concerto. It dates from 1832, the year of Mendelssohn’s first meeting with Chopin during his second stay in Paris; hence its Franco-Italian title. The work begins with a slow introduction initiated by the piano alone, in which the late Philip Radcliffe justly points to the pervasive influence of Weber, both in the ideas themselves and in the orchestra’s accompanimental tendency towards detached chords. The piano writing is florid despite its delicacy, conjuring an expectation of virtuosity to come. An ostinato-like pattern from the piano launches the main body of the work, an Allegro con fuoco in which the solo part too makes extensive use of repeated chords by way of accompaniment to melodic material. A tentative ritardando leads to the second subject, declaimed joyfully by the orchestra and appropriated by the piano. This theme subsequently reappears in the tonic major, affirming adherence to sonata rondo principles. Despite one passage of semiquaver octaves broken between the hands, the music essays vivacity more than out-and-out virtuosity, perhaps partially confounding anticipations raised by the introduction. This might be seen as a shade self-denying in view of an account of a concert quoted by Ronald Smith in his definitive study, Alkan, Who Was Alkan? (Kahn and Averill, 1976), and originally reported in S S Stratton’s Mendelssohn (Dent Master Musicians, 1901). This apparently concerns a performance of Bach’s Triple Concerto in D minor at London’s Hanover Square Rooms in 1844. According to the witness, Charles Horsley, the pianists, Mendelssohn, Thalberg and Mendelssohn’s erstwhile teacher, Ignaz Moscheles, each improvised a cadenza during the last movement. In Smith’s words, ‘… Mendelssohn’s cadenza, the last, exploded in a veritable storm of double octaves which sustained its climax for a full five minutes [sic], bringing to a conclusion ‘an exhibition of mechanical skill and most perfect inspiration which neither before nor since … has ever been approached. The effect on the audience was electric’.’
Lest the above seem to deny what has already been said, Mendelssohn’s comment afterwards is revealing: ‘I thought the people might like some octaves so I played them.’ (Smith then points out that there are no cadenza points in the movement in question, adding ‘Music must have been fun in those days!’)
Radcliffe disparaged the Capriccio on account of ‘a second subject of startling banality’. A scholar of gently dry humour (and a profound lover of Mendelssohn’s music), he may be harmlessly mistrusted in this utterance, impenetrable in print but more likely in speech to indicate secret glee than to deliver censure. Certainly few of the composer’s other devotees have resisted the Capriccio’s delightfully unassuming charms.
Piano Concerto No 1 in G minor Op 25: That Mendelssohn thought long about concerto form is shown by his revisions of the concertante works, including the Violin Concerto. The G minor Piano Concerto opens with the briefest of orchestral introductions to an energetic movement designated Molto Allegro con fuoco. The piano enters with a virile subject characterized by a descending octave leap and ascending octave scale. From this the orchestra borrows a dotted rhythm and fashions material of its own in response. A transition to the relative major key is dominated by the piano. The second subject is surprisingly wide-ranging in key, moving via B flat minor to D flat major, where it remains until B flat major is regained via a brief reprise of the first theme. A full restatement of the secondary melody is heard from the orchestra, accompanied by flowing semiquavers from the piano. This material lends a more opulently Romantic cast to what might otherwise seem a movement of Classical concision and economy. The short development makes use of both subjects. The recapitulation saves its surprises for the expected peroration, but this never arrives and is replaced by a dramatic brass entry on a chord of B major. This diverts the music, via a brief but introspective cadenza, directly into the slow movement, a soulful Andante in triple time. The characteristic principal theme is stated by the strings and restated in gently decorated form by the piano. This is demonstrable ‘Song without Words’ territory. The movement expands naturally into a simple ternary structure embracing only brief and incidental migrations from the tonic and dominant key areas. The movement comes to a complete standstill on a sustained chord of E major, although the score indicates that the final Presto follows almost at once.
The finale produces another of those tunes apt to delight listeners while deterring those proud of an elevated taste from admitting their enthusiasm. The resurgent repeated chord device for accompaniment enhances the sense of a light rather than an elegant purpose, almost suggesting the style of the drawing room galop so beloved of the later Victorians. This is the kind of music which mocks any attempt at straight-faced analytical comment. Suffice it to say that there follows a secondary theme in the tonic key (now G major). There is much of a textural nature similar to the first movement, as well as a passage of more Mozartian (though breathlessly high-spirited) dialogue. The work’s concision proclaims an aversion to self-regarding display, and its conclusion admits of the conventional orchestral last word. Liszt, incidentally, had just met Mendelssohn in Paris when, at the Erard piano showrooms, he was shown the new and barely legible score of this concerto. ‘A miracle, a miracle!’ exclaimed Mendelssohn to Hiller afterwards, having just witnessed Liszt sit down and play the work easily at sight (Alan Walker: Franz Liszt: The Virtuoso Years, 1811–1847; Faber and Faber, London, 1983). Whatever Mendelssohn’s subsequent opinion of how Liszt used his gifts, there can be no doubt that he was bowled over by their awesome extent.
Rondo Brillant Op 29: The Rondo Brillant bears a dedication to Ignaz Moscheles (1794–1870), Mendelssohn’s teacher in Berlin in 1824 and a valued colleague and friend thereafter, who in 1846 was to accept his former pupil’s invitation to become first Professor of Piano at the newly founded Leipzig Conservatory.
The Rondo is in the key of E flat major. Its light-heartedness is offset by a more formidable and consistent order of virtuoso demand than is found elsewhere in the concertante keyboard works, and the absence of a slow introduction instils a compulsive momentum which is effortlessly maintained from start to finish, aided at several points by a seemingly equestrian accompanying rhythm of paired quaver chords across main beats. The ending is almost too terse, leaving little room for a climactic peroration and vanishing instead with the abruptness of Haydn in mischievous vein. The work seems likely to have appealed to its dedicatee, whose own concerto output was influenced by Beethoven and Schubert and in turn informed Mendelssohn’s style. The Rondo Brillant was composed in 1834.
Piano Concerto No 2 in D minor Op 40: The Second Piano Concerto was composed for the Birmingham Festival of 1837 and was premiered there with Mendelssohn himself at the piano. The work was written just after the composer’s honeymoon. This detail, surprising in view of the sober beginning, may be explained by the fact that Mendelssohn had actually returned to France with the conscious intention of seeking a wife—his family felt this was the only means of arousing him from deep depression resulting from his beloved father’s death. Matters brighten up as the work progresses, moreover, and the opening may in any case be a matter of a simple liking for a common chord at a particular pitch. William Smyth Rockstro, an English pupil present at a Mendelssohn class studying Hummel’s Septet in D minor, comments:
… we well remember the look of blank dismay … as each pupil in his turn after playing the first chord, and receiving an instantaneous reproof for its want of sonority, was invited to resign his seat in favour of an equally unfortunate successor. Mendelssohn’s own manner of playing grand chords … was peculiarly impressive.
Such is the depth of reflection presumably informing the opening chords of this Concerto, orchestral though they are. Again the absence of an extended tutti promotes a sense of concision, for the piano enters almost at once. After its recitative-like response the process is repeated, expanding via piano octaves into a full exposition. Thereafter the texture is much as in the First Concerto. A second subject emerges largely unheralded from a continuum of rippling piano semiquavers against a sustained orchestral background. The development section is concerned primarily with quaver movement derived from the first extended tutti. As with the G minor work, the recapitulation subverts the expected coda, this time briefly restating the opening bars fortissimo with an austerity reminiscent of ‘Thus saith the Lord, the Lord of Hosts’ in Handel’s Messiah, before an introspective piano solo again leads directly into the slow movement. This is marked Adagio: Molto sostenuto and inhabits the key of B flat major. In its own entirely personal way it aspires to something of the prayer-like quality of certain Beethoven movements, notably the central one in his ‘Emperor’ Concerto, and it is undoubtedly one of Mendelssohn’s most heartfelt and affecting inspirations, very possibly prompted by the grief and joy by which his life had recently been touched in fairly quick succession.
The finale begins in the transitional key of G minor and leads into the sovereign tonic, now transformed into D major—a device comparably used by Rachmaninov in his famous Second Concerto. Mendelssohn here allows the sun to come out fully in a Presto scherzando in triple time. The piano’s first theme neatly complements the introduction by placing its emphatic downbeat dotted rhythm on an upbeat. Despite a certain sameness of semiquaver figuration which at times reminds one of moto perpetuo-style Bach preludes, this is a straightforwardly happy and endearing movement, comparable in its rhythms and extrovert style with the finale of the splendid Fourth Concerto by Saint-Saëns.
Serenade and Allegro giocoso Op 43: This attractive though slight work was written in 1838, a productive year which saw also the start of work on the famous Violin Concerto and the appearance of the F major Violin Sonata and First Cello Sonata in B flat. As with the Capriccio, the Serenade provokes what prove to be rather false expectations, both in its ostensible gravitas and in the elaborate delicacy of its piano writing. After this the Allegro, though marked also con fuoco in the piano part, does indeed convey what Radcliffe terms ‘a very well-behaved and genteel hilarity’, and the virtuosity is scaled down to suggest again a sort of ‘Song without Words, writ large’. If we glimpse here an endemic tendency towards almost dangerously regular phrase lengths, found in almost all Mendelssohn’s works and on occasion evocative of Blake’s ‘fearful symmetry’ in the minds of the unconverted, the day is nonetheless saved by the composer’s customary fecundity as a melodist. As before, the orchestra is allowed the last word.
Mendelssohn’s own training hardly predisposed him to endorse the vein of narcissistic showmanship which informs the advent of the new Lisztian pianism, and he did not live long enough beyond the end of Liszt’s so-called Glanzzeit (his years as an itinerant virtuoso) to witness the fruit which it bore—as showman gave way to serious composer of mature masterpieces. He heartily disapproved of Liszt’s antics and of the predatory flippancy with which he plundered inferior operatic productions of the time in order to transcribe ‘paraphrases’ on a medley of their themes. At the same time, brought up within a more sober climate of artistic propriety, he felt as keenly as anyone the immense shadow of Beethoven, without finding within himself—as a Schubert or, in France, a Berlioz could—the depth of creative independence which reaches to the very heart of musical form and language. The American composer Samuel Barber once commented, ‘I think that what’s been holding composers back a great deal is that they feel that they must have a new style every year. This, in my case, would be hopeless … I just go on doing, as they say, my thing. I believe this takes a certain courage’ (Samuel Barber: The Composer and His Music; Barbara B Heyman, Oxford University Press, 1992). This clearly holds good for many, Mendelssohn among them. Neither a radical nor, in the long run, an executant consumed by the desire simply to play, he wrote less for his instrument than Chopin, Schumann, Brahms or Liszt, and was content to enrich and illumine known territory rather than to push its boundaries back, whether in the pianistic domain or in the spheres of symphonic thought and ensemble chamber music. Conducting and teaching claimed their fair share of his energies, as did his sheer popularity and success amidst privileged society, especially in Britain. Philip Radcliffe has convincingly suggested that this last involvement may have been a limiting factor, defying him to stray into more rugged musical terrain and imposing upon him the perennial risk of a sentimentality which we may at times accurately diagnose. But his melodious charm requires such a framework, and thrives upon it. If Samuel Barber’s remark might have spoken appositely for Mendelssohn across a gulf of time and place, so especially might the author of another piano concerto whose rapt slow movement one can imagine poetically foreshadowed in that of Mendelssohn’s D minor example, and who created miniatures no less perfect than his: Edvard Grieg remarked that he wished to fashion in his music a place where all men might feel themselves at home. In this, successful as he was, he is surely matched by the composer represented here.
Francis Pott © 1997
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