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Hyperion Records

CDA67935 - Mendelssohn: The Complete Solo Piano Music, Vol. 1
The Wissower Klinken with view over the sea (c1815) by Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840)
AKG London

Recording details: March 2012
St Michael's Church, Highgate, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Annabel Connellan
Engineered by Ben Connellan
Release date: March 2013
Total duration: 74 minutes 6 seconds

'Immaculate, lightly-pedalled brilliance, unfaltering stylistic assurance, warmth and flexibility … Hyperion's sound and presentation complement Shelley's admirable performances' (Gramophone)

'When Mendelssohn asks for Presto, Shelley takes him at his word, with a fleetness and control that command admiration, not to mention envy. He also brings a wide variety of dynamics and tone, well captured by the recording. I particularly liked the sparsity of his pedalling, leaving the composer's lines to do their work' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Fans of fireworks won't be disappointed, in either the opening Capriccio in F sharp minor or the astonishing bravura finale of the Sonata in E major, both the work of the teenage Mendelssohn. Shelley gives us a further glimpse of the restlessly romantic mind of this wunderkind in the cycle of seven Characterstücke before wrapping us in the warm, gemütlich embrace of Book 1 of the Songs without Words. With playing of this quality this is going to be a series to treasure' (The Observer)

'The Seven Character Pieces, Op 7 … truly reveal the vast range of Mendelssohn's pianistic and compositional language … the programme notes are formidable and provide a veritable fund of information. Hyperion's sound quality is first-rate, as ever … Shelley's playing is faultless, and the clarity he brings to the voice-leading and the vast textures of the 'Fugue' has me listening repeatedly to this track' (International Record Review)

'I enjoyed listening to all these pieces, and thanks to Shelley’s exuberant pianism I am already looking forward to Volume Two' (Financial Times)

'The icing on the cake is that it is only volume one of a complete series. The Op 5 Capriccio is beautifully playful, revealed in astonishing, fluent playing and perfectly captured in Ben and Annabel Connellan's recording, while Shelley reveals the Op 6 Piano Sonata as a piece of real depth … a treasurable album' (International Piano)

'Felix Mendelssohn doesn’t get enough credit for the tremendous craft that underlies his music. And musicians don’t get enough credit for the skill they have to use to make it sound pretty. So hats off to veteran British pianist Howard Shelley for making magic on the start of his Mendelssohn journey. His new album for Britain’s Hyperion label is Felix Mendelssohn, The Complete Solo Piano Music – 1, so there is going to be a lot more brilliant work to come.This album is a treat from beginning to end, with Shelley knowing exactly to turn from showman to gentle tone painter. This is a classic case of an iron fist in a velvet glove, rendering music with elegance and conviction' (Musical Toronto, Canada)

The Complete Solo Piano Music, Vol. 1

Howard Shelley is acclaimed as the living master of early Romantic piano music. So much of this music was ignored throughout the twentieth century that there is still a sense of discovery at each new recording. Shelley here presents the first instalment of a six-volume set of Mendelssohn’s complete solo piano music—perhaps the least well-known part of the composer’s repertoire.

Mendelssohn composed or began nearly two hundred works for piano. Nevertheless, he saw only about seventy through the press, released in seventeen opera from the Capriccio Op 5 (1825) to the sixth volume of the Lieder ohne Worte Op 67 (1845). Some twenty-five additional pieces appeared posthumously in eleven additional opera. The remainder, whether fully drafted or fragmentary, were left to his musical estate or have disappeared.

Volume 1 includes Opp 5, 6, and 7, the first three piano compositions Mendelssohn published between 1825 and 1827, as well as Op 19b, the first volume of his Lieder ohne Worte, released in 1832.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
One of the very great pianists of the nineteenth century, Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809–1847) achieved legendary status for his performances and improvisations alike, though his piano compositions generally have not withstood comparison with the very best keyboard music of the century. The one piano sonata he published was deemed not to have broken new ground after Beethoven’s path-breaking thirty-two; he created no large-scale cyclic works comparable to Robert Schumann’s hybrid literary/musical fantasies for the instrument; his meticulously crafted Lieder ohne Worte exuded for many a refined romanticism not as soul-searching as the miniatures of Chopin or Brahms; and nowhere did his technical demands on the pianist challenge the Promethean exertions of Liszt.

But such views of Mendelssohn’s piano music largely mirrored the conventional wisdom about the composer’s stature engrained over much of the twentieth century. A complex of factors, including a reaction against Victorianism (a frequent visitor to England, Mendelssohn had enjoyed audiences with the Queen, had been embraced as a Victorian gentleman, and was an easy mark for later critiques of the period) and the banning of his music by the Nazis (though a baptized Lutheran, Mendelssohn was the grandson of the Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn), combined to undermine his reputation. And so he was remembered as a purveyor of comfortable (gemütlich) salon music; his affinity for complex Bachian counterpoint led him to rely too much on historical models; and his music betrayed a cloying sentimentality utterly at odds with modernist tastes. Writing in The Musical Times on the sesquicentenary of the composer’s birth in 1959, Stanley Bayliss conceded that Mendelssohn’s music offered ‘magic, charm, clarity, brilliance, verve, lilt, [and] polish’—but all these qualities were not enough to offset this terse verdict of post-War culture: ‘Mendelssohn does not go very deep.’

These attitudes contrasted dramatically with the composer’s meteoric rise to fame during the 1830s and 1840s, and his rapid canonization. An extraordinary child prodigy, he was compared by Goethe and Heine to a second Mozart, and described by Robert Schumann as the Mozart of the nineteenth century. As a composer, he made significant contributions to every important genre of the time, with the exception of opera (though not for want of trying—he reviewed scores of potential libretti, only to settle late in life on Die Lorelei, left unfinished at his death). As a conductor, he turned the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig into one of the premier musical institutions of his time. As a tireless editor and performer of Bach and Handel, he argued for continuities in the European classical tradition, in which he found again and again the wellspring of his own inspiration. And as a pianist, his elegant style of playing found favour with many critics, including his early biographer W A Lampadius. ‘Mendelssohn’s skill as a virtuoso was no mere legerdemain’, Lampadius wrote in 1865, ‘no enormous finger facility, that only aims to dazzle by trills, chromatic runs, and octave passages; it was that true, manly virtus from which the word virtuoso is derived; that steadfast energy which overcomes all mechanical hindrances, not to produce musical noise, but music, and not satisfied with anything short of exhibiting the very spirit of productions written in every age of musical art. The characteristic features of his playing were a very elastic touch, a wonderful trill, elegance, roundness, firmness, perfect articulation, strength, and tenderness, each in its needed place. His chief excellence lay, as Goethe said, in his giving every piece, from the Bach epoch down, its own distinctive character.’

Today, in the midst of a full-scale Mendelssohn revival, Howard Shelley’s survey of the complete solo piano music in six volumes offers a welcome opportunity to revisit and reassess this repertoire. As we now know, Mendelssohn composed or began nearly two hundred works for piano. Nevertheless, he saw only about seventy through the press, released in seventeen opera from the Capriccio Op 5 (1825) to the sixth volume of the Lieder ohne Worte Op 67 (1845). Some twenty-five additional pieces appeared posthumously in eleven additional opera. The remainder, whether fully drafted or fragmentary, were left to his musical estate or have disappeared.

Volume 1 of this series includes Opp 5, 6, and 7, the first three piano compositions Mendelssohn published between 1825 and 1827, as well as Op 19b, the first volume of his Lieder ohne Worte, released in 1832. They recall a time before the emergence of Liszt as the premier virtuoso of the century, and reflect rather the elegant, refined pianism of three earlier virtuosos with whom the young Mendelssohn had studied or had close contact: Ludwig Berger, a former student of Muzio Clementi and Mendelssohn’s principal piano instructor during the early 1820s; Johann Nepomuk Hummel, a former student of Mozart and Kapellmeister of the ducal court of Weimar; and Carl Maria von Weber, composer of the ‘romantic’ opera Der Freischütz and the Konzertstück for piano and orchestra, both of which the eleven-year-old Mendelssohn heard at their premieres in Berlin in 1821. Opp 5, 6, and 7 represent three different genres—the capriccio, treated by the young composer as a whimsical étude; the sonata, in which so many young composers tested their mettle; and the character piece. Several stylistic influences are evident, among them Beethoven, whose music swept over the impressionable youth starting around 1824, and whose late piano sonatas left their mark on Op 6, and J S Bach, the ultimate source of Mendelssohn’s fascination with all things contrapuntal, and an influence on parts of Op 7, and, to a lesser extent, Op 5.

When Gioacchino Rossini heard Mendelssohn play his Capriccio in F sharp minor Op 5 (1825), he mused ‘Ça sent la sonate de Scarlatti’ (‘That has the feeling of a Scarlatti sonata’). Indeed, with its quirky leaps, twisting figurations and register displacements, the Capriccio traces a lineage extending back to Domenico Scarlatti, whose zesty sonatas had been favoured by Muzio Clementi, the teacher of Ludwig Berger, with whom the young Mendelssohn studied piano and, for a while, composition. Formally, the work unfolds in two contrasting sections, alternating as ABAB. The A section features a series of awkwardly expanding leaps and jolting diminished-seventh harmonies, betraying why Mendelssohn referred to Op 5 as his ‘verrücktes Capriccio’ (‘madcap capriccio’). In contrast, the B section is studiously contrapuntal, and pits a sturdy, fugue-like subject against a rushing counter-subject. With Bachian ease, Mendelssohn later manipulates the subject by presenting it upside down in mirror inversion, and eventually in combination with its original form.

Mendelssohn was among the first generation of musicians to experience and come to terms with Beethoven’s now abstract, now lyrical, and now rarefied late style. According to Robert Schumann, in his Piano Sonata in E major Op 6 (1826) the seventeen-year-old Mendelssohn touched ‘Beethoven with his right hand, while looking up to him as to a saint, and being guided at the other by Carl Maria von Weber (with whom it would be more possible to be on a human footing)’. If Weber’s sparkling virtuosity informed the vivacious, driving finale of the sonata, it was Beethoven who left the most profound mark. Among points of contact between Op 6 and Beethoven’s late style are: the cantabile style of the opening first movement; key relationships a tone apart; broadly spaced chords and special pedal effects; the linking of various movements; the use of a free, unmeasured recitative in the slow movement; and cyclic applications of thematic material.

Near the end of the exposition in the first movement Mendelssohn pays homage to Beethoven by alluding to a luminous passage near the end of the slow movement of the ‘Archduke’ Piano Trio (1811), a work that lies on the threshold of Beethoven’s late style. But it was Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in A major, Op 101 (1816) that especially captured the young composer’s attention. Op 101 and Op 6 begin in E major, with gently rising melodic lines doubled in thirds (Beethoven) or tenths (Mendelssohn). While E major is the tonic of Op 6, it is the dominant of Op 101, so that Beethoven’s sonata begins as if in medias res, and then charts a course toward its A major tonic. Mendelssohn thus took the more conventional route, and in this regard his first movement might seem a pale imitation of Beethoven’s.

The second movement offers a puckish minuet that approaches the quality of a scherzo, but it is the third movement Adagio on which Mendelssohn lavished the most care. Here he begins with a turning figure reminiscent of Beethoven’s Adagio in Op 101, but then develops the figure into an extended, unmetred recitative, with four descending entries in imitative counterpoint. The effect is of a paraphrase or, better, a re-hearing of Beethoven. Subsequently, this recitative alternates with a hymn-like Andante, as if searching for a theme, ultimately answered by the arrival of the finale, linked to the slow movement through a fantasy-like transition. When all is said and done, Mendelssohn springs one final surprise near the end of the sonata, where the youthful energy of the finale unexpectedly yields to a recall of the opening of the work, bringing the music back to its source, and framing the whole.

Composed separately between 1824 and 1826, the Sieben Charakterstücke Op 7 coalesced into a suite-like collection before Mendelssohn issued them in 1827 as character pieces, providing German descriptive titles to designate the mood of each piece. That Mendelssohn conceived of the opus as a unified cycle is clear firstly from the sequence of keys (all sharp keys, centering on E minor and major), and secondly from the division into two types of pieces, pitting older against newer styles. The first type includes a Bachian invention and sarabande (Nos 1 and 6) and a fugue in a decidedly baroque style (No 3). The second type offers three ‘modern’ sonata-form movements (Nos 2, 4 and 7). Bridging the two is an erudite fugue (No 5), replete with augmentation, diminution and mirror inversion, as if, as one reviewer noted, ‘the composer wished to demonstrate openly how diligently he had studied and mastered his subject through counterpoint’. But for all the learned techniques, Mendelssohn’s inspiration may well have been not Bach but Beethoven, who had produced a recondite acceleration fugue of his own in the finale of the Piano Sonata Op 110. Be that as it may, Mendelssohn unquestionably found his own voice in No 7, a fleet-footed scherzo that impressed Robert Schumann as a kindred spirit to the elves’ music in the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The magical, evanescent ending of No 7 led Hermann Franck to comment: ‘All flies past hastily, without rest, gathering together in colorful throngs, and then scattering in a puff.’

Mendelssohn is inextricably associated with the genre of the Lied ohne Worte, described by Schumann as an art song abstracted for the piano, with its text deleted. The origins of this new genre are shrouded in some mystery, but it may trace its source to a childhood game the composer played with his elder sister, Fanny—the second child prodigy in the Mendelssohn family—in which the two composed piano pieces and then added texts to them. Mendelssohn’s first datable Lied ohne Worte, written for Fanny, is from 1828, but not until a few years later, in 1832, did he hit upon the idea of publishing a set of piano Lieder as a counterpart to a set of songs. Both were assigned the opus number 19, though today they are distinguished as Op 19a (Sechs Gesänge) and Op 19b (Sechs Lieder ohne Worte).

The six pieces of Op 19b offer keyboard simulations of three vocal types, the solo Lied (Nos 1 and 2), with a treble cantilena supported by an accompaniment below; duet (No 6), in which the melodic line is doubled in thirds or sixths; and part-song (Nos 3 and 4), featuring homophonic textures in chordal style. Two pieces (Nos 3 and 5) are of sufficient length to unfold in miniature sonata forms. The composer left every piece but the last untitled, though No 3, with its pursuing imitative lines and echoing horn calls, impresses as a Jagdlied (‘hunting song’), and No 4, which shares its key and some thematic material with No 3, as a Jägerlied (‘hunters’ song’). The muted No 6, the Venetianisches Gondellied, was the first of several that Mendelssohn composed and so titled, and was inspired by his visit to Venice in 1830. Its blurry pedal effects and gently undulating cross-rhythms magically conjure up the romantic allure of the Venetian lagoons.

Mendelssohn issued Op 19b and subsequent sets of Lieder ohne Worte in parallel German, French and English editions. In Paris the pieces first appeared as Romances sans paroles, and in England as Original Melodies for the Piano. The composer never used the now prevalent translation Songs without Words, nor did he authorize other descriptive titles fitted to the pieces in later editions, for example ‘Sweet Remembrance’ (No 1), ‘Regrets’ (No 2), and ‘Restlessness’ (No 5). Largely the whims of publishers, these accretions ran counter to Mendelssohn’s own aesthetic, to let the individual Lieder stand by themselves, and to trust the precision of musical expression over the ambiguities of words.

R Larry Todd © 2013
author of Mendelssohn: A Life in Music and Fanny Hensel: The Other Mendelssohn

Other albums in this series
'Mendelssohn: The Complete Solo Piano Music, Vol. 2' (CDA68059)
Mendelssohn: The Complete Solo Piano Music, Vol. 2
Buy by post £10.50 CDA68059  Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
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