Under the surface – Mendelssohn Preludes and Fugues played by Howard Shelley (Hyperion)

mendelssohn-shelley

Composer: Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)

Nationality: German

What did he write? Schumann regarded Mendelssohn as the ‘Mozart of the nineteenth century’, as he was an uncommonly gifted child prodigy. A pianist as well as a composer, Mendelssohn is nonetheless better known for his orchestral and choral works. His five symphonies are best represented by the Scottish, the Italian and the Reformation (nos.3-5 respectively), while his most famous choral work – and one often performed by amateur choral groups – is the story of the Old Testament prophet Elijah.

The composer’s impressive body of chamber music is now better appreciated, headed by two Piano Trios and six published String Quartets.

What are the works on this new recording? Mendelssohn’s work for solo piano is often regarded as a set of attractive miniatures. This is doubtless due to the popularity of the Lieder ohne Worte (Songs Without Words), published in sets of six throughout the composer’s career. They are around three minutes each in length and carry attractive music and titles such as Venetian Gondola Song. On this recording, part four of a complete series of Mendelssohn piano music, Howard Shelley gives us the fifth book, a complement to the main work itself – the set of six Preludes and Fugues.

Mendelssohn was almost single-handedly responsible for the revival of Bach’s music in the nineteenth century, resurrecting the composer in a performance of the St Matthew Passion in Berlin in 1829, when Mendelssohn was still only 20. In the Preludes and Fugues he was paying a more obvious musical homage, using a form Bach had perfected for the keyboard.

What is the music like? When a composer writes a fugue it can sound as though they are showing off academically rather than communicating emotionally, but Mendelssohn brings to these works a strong sense of purpose and poise. His instinctive writing for the piano means the notes effectively play themselves, but they are not easy to play – which is where Howard Shelley comes in! Under his fingers the fugues really jump off the page when moving at pace, and the preludes each have strong personality.

Complementing them with Book 5 of the more romantic Songs without Words is a good move, and Shelley takes up the role of poet in the fanfare of the third piece or the lyrical Spring Song. Finally he adds the Andante cantabile e Presto agitato, an unpublished work of two halves, the first soft-hearted and the second bright and energetic.

What’s the verdict? This brilliantly played and recorded disc shows just how accomplished Mendelssohn’s writing for piano became, and with Howard Shelley completely mastering the technical demands the listener can appreciate the emotion of the music. The Preludes and Fugues are inspiring for their resilience, the Songs without Words for their poetic charm.

Give this a try if you like… Schubert, Chopin, J.S.Bach.

Listen

You can listen to excerpts from the disc at the Hyperion website

Meanwhile you can hear more of the composer’s Songs without Words on Spotify, in a complete set made by Daniel Barenboim:

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