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Ingrid Fliter is set to thrill her fans with a new recording of piano concertos, by Schumann and Mendelssohn, a release eagerly awaited since her acclaimed recording of Chopin 1 & 2.
A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.
By the age of 18, Mendelssohn had already developed a personal and distinctive musical style. He had created acknowledged masterpieces of chamber and orchestral music as well as writing several operas, the last of which had been publicly staged. These works reveal not only consummate technical skill, but also an extraordinary ability to go beyond the conventional practices of the day. Among his finest achievements was a group of four programmatic concert overtures that look forward to the symphonic poems of the later nineteenth century.
The Midsummer Night’s Dream overture, written when he was 17, was followed in 1828 by Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt (‘Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage’), which was based on two poems by Goethe. Mendelssohn’s next two overtures are also connected with the sea. Conceived during a visit to Scotland in 1829, Die Hebrieden (‘The Hebrides’) was directly inspired by the grandeur of nature, as Mendelssohn experienced it during a boat trip to Fingal’s Cave on the dramatic island setting of Staffa. Märchen von der schöne Melusine (‘Fairy-tale of the fair Melusina’) had its origin in the tale of Melusina, daughter of a mortal father and water-sprite mother, who is cursed to assume mermaid form every seventh day; when she marries it is on condition she must have absolute privacy on that day, but the condition is inevitably broken, and she is thereafter doomed to remain a mermaid forever. On 7 April 1834 Mendelssohn informed his sister Fanny:
I composed this overture for an opera of Conradin Kreutzer’s [Melusine (1831)], which I saw this time last year at the Königstädter Theatre. The overture (I mean Kreutzer’s) was encored, and I disliked it thoroughly, and the whole opera just as much; but not Fräulein Hähnel, who was very fascinating, especially in one scene, where she appeared as a mermaid combing her hair; this inspired me with the wish to write an overture which the people might not encore, but which would have more inner substance; so I selected the aspect of the subject that pleased me (exactly corresponding with the legend), and, in short, the overture came into the world, and this is its family history.
Orchestras initially had difficulty achieving Mendelssohn’s delicate pianissimo effects, as is shown in his correspondence with Ignaz Moscheles, who conducted the coolly received London premiere. But the overture soon gained admirers, and by the time Mendelssohn took up the conductorship of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra two years later, it had become a favourite concert piece. The Leipzig Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung noted in May 1836 that ‘by request it has been frequently performed and every time enjoyed very lively audience appreciation.’ Mendelssohn disliked the reviewers’ suggesting a specific programme for the music, however, and complained to Fanny: ‘as to the fabulous nonsense of the musical papers, about red coral and green sea monsters, and magic palaces, and deep seas, this is stupid stuff, and fills me with amazement.’ By this time Mendelssohn’s overtures were widely regarded as representing a peak of contemporary instrumental music, so that in a German encyclopedia of 1836 they were described as ‘perhaps the most beautiful overtures that, so far, the Germans possess’.
The vivid imagination and innovative approach to form displayed in Mendelssohn’s overtures also characterize the Piano Concerto in G minor. Like The Hebrides, it was conceived during his grand tour of 1829–31, which took him as far north as Oban and as far south as Naples. In Munich in June 1830, on his outward journey to Italy, he was deeply impressed artistically, and probably romantically, by the 16-year-old daughter of one of the city’s leading families, Delphine von Schauroth, who had already proved herself a talented pianist and composer. Before leaving for Italy he presented her with his newly completed Rondo capriccioso, Op 14; then, in Venice, he sketched the ’Venetianisches Gondellied’, Op 19b No 6, for her; and at the same time, the G minor Piano Concerto was taking shape in his mind. In September and October 1831, while he was back in Munich, he rapidly wrote down the concerto, and dedicated it to Delphine. During those weeks their relationship seems to have deepened, which evidently gave rise to gossip. The affair even reached the ears of the king, for Mendelssohn reported in a letter to his father on 18 October 1831: ‘The main thing that the king said to me was that I should marry Fräulein von Schauroth, that would be an excellent match, and why didn’t I do it? That, from a king, annoyed me, and somewhat piqued, I was going to answer him, when he, not even waiting for my answer, jumped to something else and then to a third thing.’ This occurred just after Mendelssohn had premiered the concerto at a concert of his own works that created a furore of interest. A local reviewer hailed him not only as a composer, but also as ‘a hero in the art of performance; great, master of all difficulties, fiery and yet comprehensible. His concert pieces in the first half, his improvised fantasia at the end reveal the skilled master of his instrument.’
The unusual form of the G minor Piano Concerto was undoubtedly inspired by Weber’s Konzertstück in F minor, Op 79, which Mendelssohn had often played, but the work is in no way derivative. In his handling of form, as well as the style of writing for the piano, the composer challenged the established conventions of the classical concerto. At the same time, however, he affirmed his reverence for classical principles, creating a work that, while confounding his listeners’ expectations, excited and delighted them.
During 1832 and 1833, Mendelssohn performed the G minor Concerto at every suitable opportunity, always with great success. His own advocacy of it as soloist seems to have made it irresistible. After a London Philharmonic Society concert on 28 May 1832, the Harmonicon observed:
The great novelty and high treat of the evening was M. Mendelssohn’s concerto, never before performed in public. He is a composer who spurns at [sic] imitation, for he is original almost to overflowing, and to the very last note of the piece is inexhaustible in new effects. The first movement of this is in G minor, and glides, without any break, into an adagio in E major, a composition of surpassing beauty, in which the violoncellos are more than vocal: they sing better than most of those to whom vocal powers are said to be given. The finale in G major is all gaiety; the composer seems to have been hardly able to keep his spirits within moderate bounds; they flow over, and half intoxicate his hearers, till the close arrives, which is all calmness—a pianissimo! Such an ending is without example, and exceedingly delightful it was admitted to be by universal consent.
In January 1833 the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung described the concerto as being ‘in a completely new form; the usual three movements connected naturally, and also in the alternation of the powerful orchestral tutti with the piano solo sections completely free of conventionality, following its own path’. Other pianists were rather slow to take up the work, but it soon became one of the most frequently performed piano concertos of the nineteenth century. Berlioz even fantasized in his Soirées de l’orchestre (No 18) that after a Paris Conservatoire examination, for which Mendelssohn’s concerto was the test piece, the piano began to play it of its own accord.
Although Schumann’s path to greatness was much more gradual than Mendelssohn’s, he aspired to write in a broad range of genres from an early age, and made many ambitious attempts to compose large-scale works. None of these came to fruition, but his brilliant and original piano music already revealed a composer of genius. Engagement to Clara Wieck and their marriage, which finally took place after acrimonious legal proceedings with her father in September 1840, marked a decisive stage in his development, and his progress towards mastery in the major genres of composition during the next few years was rapid. In the year of his marriage he devoted himself almost exclusively to song writing, and composed well over a hundred Lieder. Then in 1841, strongly encouraged by Clara, Schumann turned to orchestral music: between 23 and 26 January he completed a continuity sketch of the ‘Spring’ Symphony, Op 38, which was premiered by Mendelssohn at the Gewandhaus that March; in April and May he again wrestled with symphonic ideas, the eventual result the Overture, Scherzo and Finale, Op 52; and in May, even before that work was finished, he composed a Phantasie in A minor for piano and orchestra that would become the first movement of the concerto. Schumann could not interest a publisher in the Phantasie, however, and like several other major works from that time it was laid aside for several years. During that period he focused instead on chamber music (1842–3) and then oratorio (1843). A break in composing occurred at the beginning of 1844, when he accompanied Clara on a four-month concert tour to Russia. During the tour he primarily played the role of the husband of a more famous wife, and the consequent sense of dependence brought on severe attacks of melancholia with concomitant physical symptoms. Those symptoms persisted after their return, and for substantial periods he felt unable to compose.
In 1845, however, after the couple had moved from Leipzig to Dresden, Schumann’s condition gradually improved; returning to the Phantasie, he transformed it into a piano concerto with the addition of an intermezzo and finale. On 27 June Clara confided to her diary: ‘Robert has composed a beautiful last movement for his Phantasie … so that it is now a concerto, and I shall play it next winter. I am very glad about it for I have always wanted a large bravura piece from him.’ On 4 December she gave a private performance of the completed work with the Dresden Court Orchestra, conducted by Ferdinand Hiller; then at the 1846 New Year’s Day concert in the Leipzig Gewandhaus she performed it publicly with great success. An enthusiastic reviewer noted the ‘loud signs of joy’ and ‘stormy applause’ that greeted Frau Schumann on her appearance at the piano. He continued with a glowing account of the work itself, which shows that he had quickly grasped its essential innovative characteristics: it was ‘a beautifully conceived, deeply thought-out and spirited work, which gives gratifying evidence that Robert Schumann’s exceptional talent is also equal to the composition of brilliant solo pieces.’ But he was keen not to give the impression that he thought the concerto simply a brilliant showpiece, and summed it up in terms that retain their point and insight today:
It is not, like traditional concertos, divided into solo and tutti sections; in a symphonic manner it creates a tone picture, in which the piano plays the leading role. This shifting of colours, this conception and at the same time transformation of the relationship between orchestra and piano gives the piece a particular charm and makes it into a beautiful, rounded whole. And it appears ‘brilliant’ to us only through the genuinely artistic treatment of the piano, through the effective inclusion of noble bravura, through the character of the individual parts, which is sometimes passionate, sometimes soft and direct, sometimes mischievous and sportive, and through rare adroitness in form and development of ideas, not through the employment of fashionable virtuoso tricks.
The work was published later that year by Breitkopf & Härtel. Clara continued performing it regularly until her death in 1896, and it was soon taken up by other pianists. In time it would come to be seen as the iconic mid-Romantic piano concerto.
Clive Brown © 2016