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Mendelssohn: Da Capo al Fine - Variations, Preludes and Fugues, Klavierstücke (CD Decca, 2014)

These three CDs include all the variations, preludes and fugues, études and Klavierstücke except the ones recorded on my previous discs. They are mostly pieces composed either in Mendelssohn’s youth (many of the unpublished pieces and the Charakterstücke Op. 7) or else in the last decade of his life (variations, various preludes and fugues, Kinderstücke). This explains the title Da Capo al Fine, a title that also symbolises the completion, with this set, of a complete edition of Mendelssohn’s piano works on 9 CDs, which explores his first creative efforts, released here for the very first time, and the most mature results of his development.
Da Capo al Fine is also a term used in musical notation to indicate that on reaching the end of a piece it is to be repeated from the beginning (Da Capo) until the point marked as Fine. The pieces that have a Da Capo are mostly minuets with trio and other closed forms belonging to the baroque and classical tradition, which Mendelssohn looked upon as a model not only in the years when he was learning but also during his subsequent development, as we can see in the cycles of variations and the preludes and fugues. In these works the masterly command of counterpoint and classical structures is combined with a restlessness and a harmonic tension that make this music a clear forerunner of the achievements of Johannes Brahms some decades later. This is particularly true of the masterly Variations sérieuses, perhaps the highest peak of Mendelssohn’s entire output for piano. Here we are also presenting four variations that were excluded from the definitive version (nos. 12–15 in the first version). They were published in 2009 by Bärenreiter (BA 9082).
The third CD is devoted entirely to unpublished works and pieces published only recently, with which I become acquainted thanks to Ralf Wehner, the author of the Mendelssohn-Werkverzeichnis, which is the first complete thematic catalogue of Mendelssohn’s work (Breitkopf BV 317, 2009). The catalogue also includes all the locations of the manuscripts, for the benefit of scholars who wish to obtain the scores. It adopts a systematic numbering system (MWV) for every piece that Mendelssohn wrote. Works for piano, of which there are 199, are indicated by the letter U. Some pieces do not appear in the present collection because they have been lost or are not available (belonging to private individuals who do not allow access) or are incomplete, such as the Fugue MWV U 199, which has only 5 bars. Also included here are two piano pieces that do not appear in the “official” piano output, written down in an exercise book by Mendelssohn in about 1819–20 when he was studying composition with Karl Zelter (R. Todd: Mendelssohn’s Musical Education: A Study and Edition of His Exercises in Composition. Cambridge University Press, 1983) and catalogued under the letter Z. They are the Variations in D major MWV Z 1/119 and the Suite in four movements in G major/minor MWV Z 1/105–108. They are the only two exercises in this notebook that I considered suitable for inclusion here, because, although they originated as “school exercises” and clearly had stylistic models to follow, they show a creativity and expressive identity that may arouse interest and curiosity. For the same reason I thought it appropriate to include one of the many abstract canons that Mendelssohn composed (catalogued under the letter Y), because, although not written explicitly for the piano (as the Canon MWV U 163 was), it is particularly idiomatic and effective when performed on the keyboard. A piano version of this canon, edited by Emilio Ghezzi, has been published by L’Oca del Cairo (2001).
For those who wish to gain a deep understanding of Mendelssohn’s personality, it is useful to discover how he developed in his early years of study and to see the styles and composers that he initially took as his models. Thus, when listening to his youthful works, it is possible to note their closeness to the language of Bach and Haydn and the assiduity with which the young Mendelssohn used counterpoint techniques. Equally surprising is the rapidity of his stylistic evolution, which is evident if we compare the works of 1820 with those of a few years later, such as the Charakterstücke Op. 7, the first important piano cycle that Mendelssohn published.
The unpublished works presented here also include occasional pieces, some of them very short, which Mendelssohn wrote as dedications in the guestbooks of friends. This is the case with the curious and disconcerting Bärentanz MWV U 174, the manuscript of which appeared in the Musical Times in February 1909 and is reproduced here in facsimile. In this piece, written when Mendelssohn was staying with the Benecke family in London in June 1842, the indication Da Capo al Fine is used frenetically, with an injunction to repeat from the beginning “very often”, in accordance with an undoubtedly modern notion of reiteration. Also very modern is the use of the extreme registers of the piano, although in this case employed with playful, light-hearted intentions. The two hands play a good seven octaves apart, using only the first and last octaves of the keyboard, producing a strange effect of timbre that we would be unlikely to associate with Mendelssohn’s piano style.
On coming to the conclusion of this complete set I wish to express my thanks to Decca, which placed its trust in me and provided stimulus for this project, and to the Mendelssohn-Stiftung in Leipzig, which has constantly followed and facilitated my research activity and study, in conjunction with the Italian Associazione Mendelssohn, the producer of these recordings.
I would also like Da Capo al Fine to epitomise the need to listen to Mendelssohn with new ears, getting away from the beaten path and discarding all preconceptions, and I hope that the possibility of looking back will spark off a fruitful “recirculation” of ideas and positive new listening experiences that will cast light on the many facets of Felix Mendelssohn’s complex personality.

Roberto Prosseda