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.
from notes by Francis Pott © 1997