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Hyperion Records

CDA68059 - Mendelssohn: The Complete Solo Piano Music, Vol. 2
The Temple of Juno in Agrigento by Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840)
De Agostini Picture Library / Bridgeman Art Library, London
CDA68059
Recording details: June 2013
St Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Annabel Connellan
Engineered by Ben Connellan
Release date: July 2014
Total duration: 73 minutes 40 seconds

'Eminently attractive, a mix of the agreeably tuneful, romantically pictorial, invigoratingly dashing and elegantly crafted. Shelley is the stylish master of it all … books 2 and 3 of the Songs without words include some gems, and also some spirited numbers (for example, No 4 of Book 2 is marked 'Agitato e con fuoco'). Full of narrative whatever the tempo, this set concludes with the well-known and enigmatic 'Venetianisches Gondollied' with Mendelssohn exploring similar waters to those found in Chopin's Barcarolle. Similar delights follow in Book 3, the concluding 'Duetto' melting the heart in a manner that is rather Schumannesque, and so lovingly shaped by Shelley. Yes, all good stuff, and thoroughly recommended' (International Record Review) » More

The Complete Solo Piano Music, Vol. 2
Allegro con moto  [2'07]
Presto  [6'07]
No 1 in E flat major: Andante espressivo  [4'21] FREE DOWNLOAD TRACK

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 second instalment of a six-volume set of Mendelssohn’s complete solo piano music—perhaps the least well-known part of the composer’s repertoire. The first volume was praised for Shelley’s ‘immaculate, lightly-pedalled brilliance, unfailing stylistic assurance, warmth and flexibility’ (Gramophone).

This second volume includes the Rondo capriccioso, a favourite virtuoso concert piece of the nineteenth century; the three-movement Fantasia in F sharp minor, which was originally described as a ‘Sonate écossaise’, with its characteristic Scottish folk-song elements in the first movement, and two books of the Songs without Words.


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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.

The origins of the Rondo capriccioso in E major, Op 14, date to 1824, when Mendelssohn composed an Étude in E minor in his trademark elfin style, with delicate points of imitation and scurrying passagework, but also powerful martellato passages. Then, in 1830, he found a special occasion to revive the work. While visiting Munich en route to Italy and the beginning of his Grand Tour that led him as far south as Paestum, he encountered the talented pianist Delphine von Schauroth (1814–1887), whom he described as ‘slim, blond, blue-eyed, with white hands, and somewhat aristocratic’. The daughter of a noble but impoverished family, Schauroth’s intrusion into Mendelssohn’s life prompted his sisters to begin speculating about her being a potential sister-in-law, and his mother to inquire discreetly about the Schauroths. In Munich the two made a musical exchange: Schauroth penned a lyrical—and Mendelssohnian—Lied ohne Worte in E major, and Mendelssohn reciprocated by adding to his Étude a lyrical and Lied ohne Worte-like Andante, also in E major, with a brief transition to the former Étude. Covering up all traces of the recomposition, he described the process as adding ‘sauce and mushrooms’. The finished product appeared later in 1830 in England and 1831 in a German edition as the Rondo capriccioso, and became a favourite virtuoso concert piece of the nineteenth century.

We know relatively little about Mendelssohn’s Fantasia in E major on ‘The last rose of summer’, Op 15, based on the popular Irish song. It was probably composed earlier than 1830, when it appeared in London as 'Fantasia (on a favourite Irish melody)'. The poem was written by Thomas Moore in 1805, and set to music by the Irish composer John Stevenson, who collaborated with Moore on the publication of his Irish Melodies. The melody was the basis of some variations for flute and piano by Beethoven, and also featured in Flotow’s opera Martha (1847). Mendelssohn’s composition begins with a sustained, harp-like, arpeggiated chord, as a brief prelude before we hear a simple setting of the melody. The main portion of the Fantasia is then given to a Presto agitato in E minor. Its frenetic, agitated motion is interrupted midway by a free series of recitative-like passages, and later by a shortened recall of the melody. In the final portion of the Fantasia Mendelssohn adds a coda that quietly ruminates on the theme, as if freely reminiscing on it in retrospect.

While returning to London from his Scottish sojourn in 1829, Mendelssohn made an excursion to northern Wales, where he visited the family of John Taylor (1779–1863), an English mining engineer who owned a summer residence in Flintshire. (Taylor’s sister, Sarah Austin, was a member of the circle of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, and a productive author and translator of German literature.) Playing the English gentleman, Mendelssohn enjoyed hunting, reading Sir Walter Scott, visiting one of Taylor’s mines, and flirting with his three daughters, for whom the composer produced the Trois fantaisies ou caprices, Op 16. For Anne, he joined a pensive Andante con moto in A minor, with traces of his Scottish style, to a spirited, A major Allegro vivace meant to capture bouquets of Anne’s favourite roses and carnations, with ascending arpeggiations to suggest the wafting scent. Floral imagery also informed the second caprice, for Honora. This E minor Scherzo is propelled by crisp fanfares and light staccato work to represent a creeping vine with trumpet-shaped flowers. And the third caprice, for Susan, whom Mendelssohn described as the ‘prettiest’, gently traced the course of a meandering rivulet that the two encountered during one of their walks.

Mendelssohn was among many nineteenth-century German composers, among them Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and Bruch, who were fascinated by Scotland, by its folk music, history and literature. Mendelssohn was the only one of these six who visited Scotland, when at the age of twenty during the summer of 1829 he found the inspiration for his Scottish Symphony at Holyrood Chapel in Edinburgh and for the 'Hebrides' Overture (also known as the 'Fingal’s Cave' Overture) on the desolate island of Staffa off the coast of Mull in the Hebrides. But well before he made his celebrated walking tour of Scotland in 1829, he was reading the poetry and novels of the ‘great wizard’ of the North, Sir Walter Scott, and was acquainted with the ‘Ossianic’ poems, one of the great literary forgeries of the eighteenth century. In the early 1820s he composed two jejune settings of verses from Scott’s epic poem The Lady of the Lake (including the Ave Maria, also set by Schubert). Then, probably in 1828 or early 1829, the young composer attempted his first full-scale work inspired by a Scotland he had not yet seen or experienced. The three-movement Fantasia in F sharp minor, Op 28, eventually released in 1834, took shape originally as a 'Sonate écossaise', mentioned already in family correspondence from early 1829. Four years later, early in 1833, Mendelssohn revised the work, still titled 'Sonate écossaise', but then published it the following year as a Fantasia, without its Scottish attribution.

In three movements—slow, moderate, and very fast—its broad architectural outlines recall another work by a German composer who had challenged the boundaries between the fantasy and sonata—the celebrated 'Sonata quasi una fantasia' of Beethoven popularized as the ‘Moonlight’. Be that as it may, Mendelssohn captured characteristic aspects of Scottish folk music in the harp-like preluding of the opening measures, the use of drone effects, and widely spaced chords. The close of the first movement, an especially memorable passage, uses open pedal to create a deliberately blurred, harmonically effacing effect. Whether the second movement, in A-B-A form, contains Scottish elements remains open to question; but the highly charged, dynamic finale has a restless energy that impresses as looking forward to the ‘warlike’ finale of the Scottish Symphony.

Though still couched in mystery, the origins of the Lieder ohne Worte may lie in a childhood musical game the composer played with his sister, the musical prodigy Fanny Mendelssohn, who reported in a letter from the 1830s that as children they experimented with fitting newly contrived texts to their piano pieces. To Fanny we also owe the revelation that her brother composed for her birthday on 14 November 1828 a Lied ohne Worte, which was preserved in her autograph album, where he recorded a Lied in E flat major. Fanny’s comment is the first documented reference to the new genre, which became inextricably associated with Felix Mendelssohn, though his sister also produced several finely wrought, gem-like examples of piano Lieder. In two parts, Mendelssohn’s Lied in E flat major comprises an expressive Allegro that spills over into a coda marked Grave, the first few bars of which resemble the principal theme of the Lied ohne Worte, Op 19b No 4. Here we find a relatively rare instance of Mendelssohn’s use of self-quotation. In 1830, he composed another example, the Lied in A major, which he appended to a letter sent to his sister from Munich. Just fifteen bars in length, it impresses as an improvisation, and ends softly on a tantalizing half cadence, as if the conclusion were to follow in his next letter. It did not, and the composer never published this lyrical miniature.

Mendelssohn’s second volume of Lieder ohne Worte, Op 30, was released in 1835, though its contents were sifted from pieces composed separately between 1830 and 1835, and then gradually selected and ordered into the opus in a distinctive arrangement of keys, alternating between major and minor, and progressing from two flat keys to four sharp keys (E flat major–B flat minor–E major–B minor–D major–F sharp minor). As was the case with his first set, Op 19b, the composer chose examples of the solo Lied (No 1), duet (No 6), and part-song (No 3), with pianistic character pieces (Nos 2, 4 and 5). Op 30 was the first volume of Lieder ohne Worte to bear a dedication, to Elise von Woringen, a daughter of the Düsseldorf appellate judge and supporter of the composer. The dedication helped initiate the tradition of associating Mendelssohn’s Lieder ohne Worte with feminine qualities. Indeed, two pieces were originally written for other women. No 2, beginning in a pulsating B flat minor but turning to a joyous B flat major, celebrated the birth in 1830 of Sebastian Hensel, son of Mendelssohn’s sister Fanny, while No 6 was a gift for Henriette Voigt, a Leipzig pianist and salonnière, of whom Robert Schumann wrote that she never played a composition badly, nor ever uttered anything schlecht. The second of the 'Venetian Gondellieder', No 6 is an impressionistic miniature that features a haunting soprano cantilena subsequently doubled at the third, in effect transforming this solo Lied into a duet.

Published in 1837, the third volume of Lieder ohne Worte, Op 38, was among the first works of Mendelssohn to appear after his wedding to Cécile Jeanrenaud, daughter of a French Huguenot minister whose family had settled in Frankfurt. Like Op 30, Op 38 was dedicated to a woman, Rosa von Woringen (sister of Elise). But as in Op 30, several pieces were written for other women, including the pensive No 2, for the soprano Henriette Grabau, and the brilliantly arpeggiated No 3, for the eighteen-year-old Clara Wieck. In a special category by itself was No 6. Titled Duetto, it bore Mendelssohn’s specific instruction to highlight the two melodic voices throughout. Alternating in the soprano and tenor and then joining together, the two voices represented the composer and his fiancée, as he at once penned an intimate love song, but also drew on a tradition extending back to Weber’s Aufforderung zum Tanz (‘Invitation to the Dance’) and Mozart’s duet ‘Là ci darem la mano’ from Don Giovanni. Of the other Lieder, No 4, framed by a short, improvisatory prelude and postlude, is in a homophonic style resembling a part-song. The more extended No 5, in a compound metre and propelled by agitated syncopations, perhaps suggests a ballad reminiscent of Schubert’s Erlkönig, performed by Mendelssohn with Henriette Grabau in Leipzig in March 1837, only a month before he composed the piano piece.

R Larry Todd © 2014
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. 1' (CDA67935)
Mendelssohn: The Complete Solo Piano Music, Vol. 1
MP3 £7.99FLAC £7.99ALAC £7.99Buy by post £10.50 Studio Master: FLAC 24-bit 96 kHz £12.00ALAC 24-bit 96 kHz £12.00 CDA67935  Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
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