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Piano Concerto No 2 in D minor, Op 40
The Second Piano Concerto was composed for the Birmingham Festival of 1837 and was premiered there with Mendelssohn himself at the piano. The work was written just after the composer’s honeymoon. This detail, surprising in view of the sober beginning, may be explained by the fact that Mendelssohn had actually returned to France with the conscious intention of seeking a wife—his family felt this was the only means of arousing him from deep depression resulting from his beloved father’s death. Matters brighten up as the work progresses, moreover, and the opening may in any case be a matter of a simple liking for a common chord at a particular pitch. William Smyth Rockstro, an English pupil present at a Mendelssohn class studying Hummel’s Septet in D minor, comments:

… we well remember the look of blank dismay … as each pupil in his turn after playing the first chord, and receiving an instantaneous reproof for its want of sonority, was invited to resign his seat in favour of an equally unfortunate successor. Mendelssohn’s own manner of playing grand chords … was peculiarly impressive.

Such is the depth of reflection presumably informing the opening chords of this Concerto, orchestral though they are. Again the absence of an extended tutti promotes a sense of concision, for the piano enters almost at once. After its recitative-like response the process is repeated, expanding via piano octaves into a full exposition. Thereafter the texture is much as in the First Concerto. A second subject emerges largely unheralded from a continuum of rippling piano semiquavers against a sustained orchestral background. The development section is concerned primarily with quaver movement derived from the first extended tutti. As with the G minor work, the recapitulation subverts the expected coda, this time briefly restating the opening bars fortissimo with an austerity reminiscent of ‘Thus saith the Lord, the Lord of Hosts’ in Handel’s Messiah, before an introspective piano solo again leads directly into the slow movement. This is marked Adagio: Molto sostenuto and inhabits the key of B flat major. In its own entirely personal way it aspires to something of the prayer-like quality of certain Beethoven movements, notably the central one in his ‘Emperor’ Concerto, and it is undoubtedly one of Mendelssohn’s most heartfelt and affecting inspirations, very possibly prompted by the grief and joy by which his life had recently been touched in fairly quick succession.

The finale begins in the transitional key of G minor and leads into the sovereign tonic, now transformed into D major—a device comparably used by Rachmaninov in his famous Second Concerto. Mendelssohn here allows the sun to come out fully in a Presto scherzando in triple time. The piano’s first theme neatly complements the introduction by placing its emphatic downbeat dotted rhythm on an upbeat. Despite a certain sameness of semiquaver figuration which at times reminds one of moto perpetuo-style Bach preludes, this is a straightforwardly happy and endearing movement, comparable in its rhythms and extrovert style with the finale of the splendid Fourth Concerto by Saint-Saëns.

from notes by Francis Pott © 1997

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Details for CDA66969 track 7
Adagio: Molto sostenuto
Recording date
10 January 1997
Recording venue
Dudley Town Hall, Warwickshire, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Andrew Keener
Recording engineer
Tony Faulkner
Hyperion usage
  1. Mendelssohn: Piano Concertos (CDA66969)
    Disc 1 Track 7
    Release date: August 1997
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