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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.

from notes by Francis Pott © 1997

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