• Features

Mendelssohn: Concertos for two pianos and orchestra (Decca)

Mendelssohn’s two concertos for two pianos and orchestra are among the composer’s least well-known and least frequently performed works, and did not appear in print until Karl Heinz Köhler’s editions were published by Breitkopf in 1960. Felix composed both concertos as birthday presents for his sister Fanny (1805-1847), like her brother, a great keyboard virtuoso. The playful nature of the relationship between the two young siblings (testified in numerous letters) also permeates the close dialogue between the two instruments, with touches of humour and sudden changes of register. Naturally, both concertos contain many bravura passages, intended to show off not only the keyboard skills of the dedicatee, but of Felix himself too.

In 1823 Mendelssohn had already written three concertos, all published posthumously: the Concerto for piano and strings in A minor, MWV O 2 (1822), the Concerto for violin and strings in D minor, MWV O 3 (122) and the better-known Concerto for violin, piano and strings in D minor, MWV O 4 (1823). The two concertos for two pianos and orchestra, however, represent an important advance on their predecessors, in terms of the quality of the orchestration and their expressive richness.

The Concerto MWV O 5 in E major was completed in November 1823, in time for Fanny’s eighteenth birthday on 14 November. The first performance was given on 7 December 1823, during one of the “Sunday musical salons” that the Mendelssohn family organised in their Berlin home, with the two siblings at the pianos, and an orchestra of professional musicians engaged by their father Abraham. There is a first version of the opening movement, probably the one played in the Mendelssohn home in 1823, which contains around 90 extra bars. Mendelssohn himself chose to reduce the movement considerably when he came to perform the concerto in London on 13 July 1829 together with Ignaz Moscheles, with the goal of giving it a slimmer, more linear shape. The version performed here is the composer’s revision, published posthumously by Breitkopf in 1960. The young Mendelssohn’s orchestral writing here is more developed than in his three preceding concertos: the transparency of the instrumental texture and the contrapuntal skill emerge with a poetic naturalness that anticipates the subtleties we find a few years later in the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, also in E major.

The two solo pianists are often set up in opposition, with themes introduced first by one and then the other, as if the intention were to compare the two performers’ skills. This is evident at the outset, in the soloists’ first entry, where each pianist is given a virtuoso cadenza of rapid arpeggios and scales up and down the length of the keyboard.

The second movement is a rocking 6/8 Andante in C major, in ABA form. Mendelssohn here is already a master at creating magical sounds, thanks to his skill as an orchestrator and his sophisticated use of harmony. The two pianos appear separately: the more lyrical opening section is for the first piano, while the second bursts into the more agitated B section in C minor. The varied return of the first section, where finally the two pianos play together, is full of poetry, with the initial theme now played by the orchestra against a magical backdrop of delicate triplets. The third movement is a model of airy virtuosity, with the almost “fairy” quality typical of Mendelssohn’s piano music. The two soloists take on different characters: the first, lighter and more virtuosic, the second, more lyrical, before they join together in the exciting finale.

The Concerto in A flat major, MWV O 6 was composed in 1824 for Fanny’s nineteenth birthday, and displays even more lavish orchestral writing, with juxtaposed orchestral masses – a stimulating exercise in orchestration for the fifteen-year-old composer. While Mozart’s concertos could have been a model for the E major concerto, here Beethoven (and Hummel) seem a closer point of reference, both in terms of the grandeur of the first and third movements, and the density of the piano writing, which makes greater use of doublings and chordal parts, with the two pianos unfurling rapid scales or arpeggios in thirds or sixths. It may be no accident that Mendelssohn frequently inserts the famous rhythmic motif of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in the first movement of this concerto.

Here too the second movement is written in a distant key (E major), a major third below the home key, just as in his previous concerto, and in Beethoven’s “Emperor”. Mendelssohn will return to a similar mood (again in E major) in the Andante of his op. 25 piano concerto. The third movement marks a return to the tone of grandeur: both pianos play the bold, triumphant opening with its extensive use of chords and double thirds. The same figure then reappears in a busy fugato, which will later reappear in inversion. There are plenty of humorous ideas, like the sudden leaps of register and the knowing winks between the two soloists in the many back and forth moments of repartee, which become even more thick and fast in the impassioned final coda.

As in the preceding recording of the piano concertos, here too we have taken a historically-informed approach in terms of style, with minimal use of string vibrato and much attention to the rhetorical effects in Mendelssohn’s writing. We have consequently chosen to play two brand-new Chris Maene pianos with parallel strings, which produce a transparent sound that is very close to that of the pianos of Mendelssohn’s day, and blend well with the sound of the natural trumpets and horns of the Residentie Orkest.

Our aim was to give full expression to the liveliness of these concertos, the inspiration and playful quality that we experienced first-hand during the recording sessions, thanks especially to the fellow-feeling of Jan Willem de Vriend and the Residentie Orkest. Mendelssohn, besides, got huge enjoyment from playing the E major concerto himself, as we know from his letter to his father from London in July 1823: “It was great fun; no one has an idea how Moscheles and I coquetted together on the piano, — how the one constantly imitated the other”.



Roberto Prosseda

Translation: Kenneth Chalmers