Howard Shelley bookends this latest volume in his survey of Mendelssohn’s all too often underrated piano music with its two most substantial and satisfying items—the well-known Variations sérieuses (so called to differentiate them from the decorative type of salon variations so fashionable at the time), and the last book of Songs Without Words which Mendelssohn saw through the press. The dark-hued variations are his homage to Bach’s solo violin Chaconne, by way of Beethoven’s 32 Variations in C minor; while the Songs Without Words include an attractive pair of melancholy pieces in minor keys, as well as the vertiginous ‘Spinning Song’ whose dizzying curlicues spiral upwards at the end as the music seems to disappear in a puff of smoke. Shelley also offers two further sets of variations, one of them strikingly coming to an end in a haze of nostalgia, as well as an attractive collection of ‘Christmas Pieces’; and a virtuoso set of three Studies, the first—and by far the best—of them making it sound as though three hands were at work on the keyboard.
As always, Shelley makes light of the music’s technical difficulties, and plays with innate musicianship throughout. It’s possible to feel that there’s a touch more poetry and drama to be found in the Variations sérieuses, but Shelley’s performance is perfectly fine in its own terms, and followers of this valuable series won’t be disappointed. The perceptive booklet notes by the Mendelssohn specialist R Larry Todd are a decided asset.