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Mendelssohn: Piano con Fuoco - Sonatas, Fantasias, Capriccios (CD Decca, 2012)

In Mendelssohn’s piano music one often comes across the rather unusual indication piano con fuoco. Unlike more common terms such as piano dolce or piano espressivo, the direction con fuoco almost seems like a contradiction of the typical expressive approach to piano passages. However, in many of the pieces in this collection it is precisely the appeal of that particular mellow tone shot through with what can at times be a quite electric musical tension that makes Mendelssohn’s piano music so unique, and marks it out from that of his contemporaries, Schumann, Chopin and Liszt.

This is apparent in the piano con fuoco passages in the Fantasia, op.28 (third movement, 5.16), in the Sonata, op.6 (fourth movement, 3.33), in the Capriccio, op.33, no.1 (2.42), and in the Fantaisies ou Caprices, op.16, no.1 (2.20) and no.2 (1.01). This special energy, with its combination of lightness and drive is a constant in each of these pieces. But in every work in this album it is possible to find moments when this idea of piano con fuoco emerges, even if it is not spelled out explicitly. In any case, Mendelssohn’s piano music regularly transmits a  special rhythmic vitality, even if with a kind of shyness, and it emerges with even greater significance in those very piano passages. Mendelssohn was famous for his keyboard virtuosity, although he was little inclined toward the more revolutionary technical innovations of Liszt and Chopin: his goal was greater transparency of contrapuntal textures. This aspect makes performing his music particularly stimulating, but tricky at the same time: it is easy to make it sound inappropriately academic (with tempos that are not sufficiently con fuoco or with too limited a range of accents) or else, in contrast, too heavy or sentimental. All it takes is to neglect the clarity of line and lightness of touch that Mendelssohn’s indications of dynamics and articulation specify precisely.

This 2CD set contains all the piano Fantasias, Capriccios and Sonatas composed by Mendelssohn, with the exception of the pieces that were rediscovered a few years ago and were included on the previous CDs “Mendelssohn Discoveries” and “Mendelssohn Rarities”. Nevertheless, there is still an element of “discovery” here, with many of these pieces, since although they were published more than a century ago, they continue to be almost absent from the piano repertoire, in concert and on disc.

Mendelssohn published only two sonatas during his lifetime: Op.6 in E major (1826), and Op.28 in F sharp minor, entitled Sonate écossaise in the first version of 1830, but then printed in 1833 under the title Fantasia. These are two peaks of his piano output, and they demonstrate his ability to combine a complete mastery of classical forms with a personal, innovative conception of thematic development. The Fantasia, op.28 is in effect a genuine sonata, in that both the first and third movements are in sonata form, and the second movement is a Scherzo that recalls its counterparts in Beethoven’s sonatas. Nevertheless, Mendelssohn here takes an extraordinarily original approach to sonata form, particularly in the first movement, where the unsettled opening arpeggios given an almost improvisatory feel, culminating in the massive dynamic explosions of the middle section. The principal theme is an ancient, desolate, with a vaguely Ossianic feel, possibly derived from the traditional Scottish material that Mendelssohn came across during his Scottish journey of 1829. The restless, dramatic mood of this movement stands in contrast to the graceful rhythmic vitality of the following Scherzo, characterized by continually accented weak beats, which add an occasionally humorous note. In the final movement, a stormy Presto con fuoco, the constant, whirling tension is sustained by forceful contrapuntal rigour. The op.28 Fantasia is one of the most unsettling and radical works in the entire Romantic piano repertoire, and once again demolishes the old chestnut (that started with Wagner) that Mendelssohn is a composer incapable of reaching real dramatic depths.

The Sonata, op.6 (1826), is a more lyrical piece, and a wonderful example of Mendelssohnian sonata-writing, for its sense of proportion, stylistic originality and formal innovations. Some of the harmonic and thematic ideas are explicitly derived from Beethoven’s op.101 Sonata, as is clear in the short, lyrical opening movement, pervaded by a delightful, natural cantabile quality. The second movement, an enchanting Minuetto in F sharp minor (a key that Mendelssohn often associates with unsettled or dark moods) is a masterpiece of poetic scene-setting, evoking a magical atmosphere that foreshadows A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The following Adagio senza tempo is a recitative that also has clear Beethoven forebears, and combines rigorous counterpoint with powerful dramatic declamation. It leads directly to the driving, energetic Finale. The first-movement theme returns in the concluding Coda, giving a cyclic coherence to the Sonata as a whole.

The Sonata, op.106 in B flat major (1827, published in 1868) also builds on a Beethovenian model: that of the great Hammerklavier sonata, op.106. It is possible that the opus number was assigned by Julius Rietz specifically to make that association. The music is not, however, a mere stylistic exercise, since the Sonata displays some characteristic Mendelssohn traits, particularly in the conclusions of the first and fourth movements, both fading away pianissimo; the second movement, a typically “elfin” Scherzo in B flat minor, has that diaphanous lightness that only Mendelssohn is able to create. As in the op.6 Sonata, here again the third movement, with its open, dignified cantabile quality, the equal of the best of the Lieder ohne Worte, flows directly into the fourth, a pastel-toned Allegro Moderato which avoids strong contrasts. The composer’s cyclical conception is demonstrated by the unheralded reappearance in the middle of the movement of a snatch of the Scherzo – a surprise that feels almost like a memory coming to the surface.

The Sonata, op.105 was composed in 1821 (but published in 1868) and demonstrates how extraordinarily mature Mendelssohn already was at the age of twelve, able to control classical musical structures with the utmost naturalness. The first movement is in a monothematic sonata form, and builds on a motif based on semitone intervals endlessly repeated in bold, rigorous counterpoint. The second movement, a still, enchanted Adagio is more original and inspired, and is one of the young Mendelssohn’s most poetic pieces of writing. The Finale returns to the tortuous polyphony of the first movement, and the manner could already be defined as piano con fuoco.

The manuscript of the B flat minor Sonata of 1823 is currently held in the Brotherton Collection at the University of Leeds, and the piece was published only in 1981, by Peters Edition. It is a single movement made up of a slow introduction and an Allegro non troppo in monothematic sonata form. The musical language marks a significant step forward from the Sonata, op.105, and shows greater emotional variety through the use of a more bold and original harmonic style.

Mendelssohn also cultivated sonata form in numerous other works for piano, like the many Capriccios and Fantasias where, freed from the constraints of the traditional sonata, he was possibly more at ease in developing his thematic ideas. The Rondo Capriccioso, op.14, completed in Munich in 1830, is one of Mendelssohn’s most popular pieces, thanks to the pure lyricism of the slow introduction and the light and airy virtuosity of the following Presto. The principal theme, characteristically elfin in character, is repeated in a four-voice canon and is close to the almost contemporary Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The Fantasia, op.15 (1830) is based on a traditional Irish song, The Last Rose of Summer, which is quoted in its entirety at the outset, in the manner of a Lied ohne Worte. The serene, almost seraphic quality of the theme (which returns three times during the piece) is immediately negated by Mendelssohn’s agitated and at times jumbled elaborations, starting with the E minor arpeggio that precedes the theme itself.

The three Fantaisies ou Caprices, op.16 were composed in England in 1829, and dedicated to the three young Taylor sisters, whose guest Mendelssohn was during a short holiday in the Lake District. Mendelssohn was not keen on revealing his sources of inspiration too explicitly, but in this case we know the details of what he is intending to describe, and they merit some attention. The first Fantasia, in A minor/major, is dedicated to Ann Taylor, and supposedly presented to the composer. The A minor opening, which closely recalls the beginning of the contemporary “Scottish” Symphony, might possibly evoke the scent of the bouquet in the pianissimo diminished-seventh arpeggio (0.41). The second Fantasia is a typically “elfin” scherzo in E minor, inspired by the yellow tecomas that Honoria Taylor used to wear in her hair. The calmer and more idyllic third Fantasia is inspired by a hill-stream that Felix and Susan Taylor crossed during a horseback riding.

The Trois Caprices, op.33 (1833-35) are among Mendelssohn’s greatest piano works. Each is structured in two parts, with a fast sonata-form movement preceded by a slow introduction. In his review of the Trois Caprices Schumann caught their special character perfectly: in the first “we pass through a gentle sadness, which calls for relief from the music it is immersed in, which it duly receives”. The second “is the work of some spirit that slipped furtively down to earth. No over-excitement, no bacchanal, no apparition of ghosts or fairies. Here we walk on solid ground, on a German, blossoming land”. In the third “we notice a nameless, concentrated fury, which is gradually and imperceptibly calmed until we reach the end of the piece, when joy finally bursts out”. Here the writing for piano is particularly demanding and exploits various typically Biedermeier devices, like an arpeggio accompaniment with the melody crossing between the two hands (in the second) and broken or alternating octaves (in the third), which have great virtuosic effectiveness.

The brief Scherzo in B minor is an occasional piece composed in London in 1829, with clear allusions to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, such as the alternation of major and minor modes, and the elfin atmosphere that Mendelssohn achieves by using alternating staccato figurations in both hands, similar to those in the Capriccio, op.33 no.3

The Scherzo à Capriccio in F sharp minor (1835) covers similar territory, although there is a greater dramatic intensity to this piece, which recalls the unease of the Fantasia, op.28.

The Capriccio, op.5 (1825), also in F sharp minor, was the first piece for piano solo that Mendelssohn published. Its strict counterpoint recalls, as Rossini noted, the terse virtuosity of Scarlatti’s sonatas. This observation – possibly more of a criticism than a compliment – emphasizes the contrapuntal clarity of the writing, and in the middle section the second theme also appears in inversion. Mendelssohn is reported to have later defined this youthful work as an “absurdité”, but it retains a certain appeal for the ceaseless kinetic energy that runs through it, making it one of the earliest examples of piano con fuoco.

The Capriccio, op.118 in E major (1837), on the other hand, is a mature work which returns to the stylistic characteristics of the Rondo Capriccioso, re-using the two-part structure, with a slow introduction in E major, and a fast section in sonata form. Mendelssohn uses the piano registers in a clearly orchestral manner, and he controls the musical tension with great effectiveness, winding it up to the whirling conclusion.

Roberto Prosseda