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


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 Finally he adds the Andante cantabile e Presto agitato, an unpublished work of two halves, the first soft-hearted and the second bright and energetic.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.


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:

Under the surface – Bruckner: String Quintet and Quartet (Linn)


Fitzwilliam String Quartet, James Boyd (viola)

Composer: Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)

Nationality: Austrian

What did he write? Bruckner’s reputation is almost entirely built on his nine symphonies and three Masses, which form the bulk of his regularly performed repertoire. However there are also a number of exquisite motets for unaccompanied choir.

What are the works on this new recording? Bruckner wrote very little chamber music, but the two works recorded here are by far the most substantial. The String Quintet is an ambitious, substantial piece that could easily be imagined for string orchestra, while the recently discovered String Quartet represents another sizeable contribution to the form.

What is the music like? The Bruckner of the symphonies is only occasionally glimpsed here, for this is music to fill drawing rooms rather than cathedrals. The quintet especially fulfils its purpose with intimacy and depth of emotion, especially in the slow movement, where the Fitzwilliam Quartet and James Boyd really go up a level.

The outer movements are a little less successful, in this recording at least, for the textures are a little congested. However the String Quartet in C minor of 1862, discovered in 1950, justifies its case for a more permanent place in the quartet repertoire, as it is a substantial and memorable work. The third movement Scherzo has a distinctive theme while the outer movements are resilient and very well done here.

As a bonus, the Fitzwilliam and Boyd include an alternative version of the Intermezzo for the String Quintet, given a polished and elegant performance here.

What’s the verdict? This new Fitzwilliam Quartet disc makes a compelling case for the recently discovered work, but is not always on the money in the Quintet itself. The Intermezzo could have a little more humour in its theme, while the outer movements sound a little grainy in the recording.

Give this a try if you like… Brahms, Mendelssohn or Schubert


You can listen to excerpts from this new disc on the Linn Records website

Under the surface – Parry: English Lyrics


Composer: Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (1848-1918)

Nationality: English

What did he write? One composition springs to mind when you think of Parry – for the hymn Jerusalem is heard at many a national occasion. Beyond the Last Night of the Proms his choral anthems are also revered, with I Was Glad and Blest Pair of Sirens two of the most popular. Beyond that there are five symphonies and a number of orchestral and chamber works.

What are the works on this new recording? Although his choral works are often heard, Parry’s songs are a relatively rare breed. Promisingly, this is billed as volume one of the English Lyrics, a massive collection in twelve volumes that the composer wrote between around 1885 and 1920. The 31 songs on this new recording include 26 from the English Lyrics but finish with five settings of Shakespeare.

What is the music like? The disc takes in many moods, and although it flits around the different volumes of English Lyrics it is very well structured in this collection. Parry’s setting of Shelley’s Good Night is an early high point, Susan Gritton slightly husky in her description of nocturnal, and this is followed by the refrain ‘Soft shall be his pillow’ in Sir Walter Scott’s Where shall the lover rest, Gritton controlling the vibrato on her top ‘G’ with impressive precision.

There are some very popular texts in these Parry settings, and Roderick Williams handles O Mistress Mine and Take, O take those lips away with unfussy poise. On the other hand there are tiny trifles such as Julia, where the baritone introduces a touch of mischief. Meanwhile Gilchrist is especially effective in the anonymous text Weep you no more, a lovely piece of consolation. Andrew West is a sensitive picture painter alongside the three singers, introducing When icicles hang by the wall with chilly detachment and accompanying Williams in On a time the amorous Silvy with an instinctive sense of when to push on and when to hang back.

What’s the verdict? Somm have put together an enterprising release that unites some of the best English singers around, with pianist Andrew West joined by Susan Gritton (soprano), James Gilchrist (tenor) and Roderick Williams (baritone). It is a nice and effective contrast to move between the male and female voices, and it helps that the words are sung so clearly.

Give this a try if you like… Brahms, Schumann or Vaughan Williams songs


You can listen to Good night, sung by Susan Gritton, here

Under the surface – Kuula Orchestral Music


Composer: Toivo Kuula (1883-1918)

Nationality: Finnish

What did he write? Kuula is not well known outside of Finland, but in his home country his reputation rests largely on his vocal music, the record company Ondine describing him as ‘a colourful and passionate portrayer of Finnish nature and people’. His catalogue includes numerous works for male choir.

What are the works on this new recording? For this disc of some of his orchestral music, Leif Segerstam has chosen the most popular works in the two South Ostrobothnian Suites­ – the Finnish region where Kuula lived. They led to him being dubbed as a successor to Sibelius. Complementing these are the Festive March and the Prelude and Fugue. All the works date from the last decade of the composer’s short life.

What is the music like? Much of it is attractive, if a little undemanding. The Prelude and Fugue feels as though it is trying a little too hard to impress, but the Festive March is a natural and spontaneous composition that sounds like Brahms on holiday.

Perhaps because they describe the Finnish country, the South Ostrobothnian Suites are the most colourful music here. The first suite is especially notable for the graceful, silvery Folk Song, where the strings taking the lead, while there is a surprisingly rustic feel to the Devil’s Dance. Meanwhile in the second suite a clean orchestral picture emerges for The Bride Arrives, while Kuula shows a gift for picture painting in the evocative woodwind calls towards the end of Rain in the forest. Perhaps the most memorable picture painting occurs in the gamelan figuration of Will-o-the-wisp, the last number in the second suite – which is beautifully played by the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra and their conductor Leif Segerstam.

What’s the verdict? If you like classical music to be slightly in the background then this is ideal, music that doesn’t make too many demands on the listener but is nonetheless rewarding when painting a picture of Finland. It is true the attractive cover draws you in, but on many occasions here there is music to match.

Give this a try if you like… Dvořák, Grieg or lighter Brahms

Spotify Playlist

You can listen to excerpts from the disc at the Presto website (be sure to click on the ‘Listen’ tab)

Meanwhile you can hear the composer’s complete songs for male voice choir on Spotify here:

Under the surface – Grieg Piano Music played by John McCabe


Composer: Edvard Grieg (1843-1907)

Nationality: Norwegian

What did he write? Two of Grieg’s works are among the most popular in classical music. These are the early Piano Concerto and the music for Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt, containing such treasures as Morning and In The Hall of the Mountain King.

What are the works on this new recording? In this new issue of remastered recordings originally made for RCA in 1978, the recently deceased pianist John McCabe plays two late collections of the composer’s music for solo piano – the Slåtter (Norwegian Peasant Dances) and a collection of short pieces published as Stimmungen (Moods) in 1905.

What is the music like? Grieg writes delightfully for the piano, and these pieces show a complete mastery of the three-minute format. In the case of the Slåtter (Norwegian Peasant Dances) he effectively turns transcriber, arranging original folk material for piano but in such a way that it sounds like it was originally written for the instrument.

It is tuneful music, and in both collections the composer’s gift for melodic setting is clear. Often his melodies are played out over drones in the left hand of the piano, giving the music a rustic feel.

McCabe finds the exquisite tension in the first piece, Resignation, while by contrast the second, Scherzo-Impromptu, is an amicable dance, and Tune from the Fairy Hill, the fourth of the Slåtter, is a dance for the outdoors. In the Hommage à Chopin, a technically demanding Studie from the Stimmungen, McCabe is wholly equal to the task.

Grieg’s music may be charming but if often demonstrates a chilling undercurrent, which can clearly be heard in The Mountaineer’s Song and Night Ride from Stimmungen. McCabe communicates this with a real frisson.

What’s the verdict? This music feels intensely personal, and although it is the work of a composer in his sixties there is still a resolutely youthful side to it, and McCabe brings out the balance between the two.

Give this a try if you like… Sibelius piano music, Chopin or Mendelssohn

Spotify Playlist

Firstly you can listen to Resignation, the first piece of the Slåtter, here

A playlist of lesser-known Grieg is available on Spotify below, including the mature Violin Sonata no.3, the two Elegiac Melodies, Bergliot for baritone and orchestra and finally the Lyric Suite, comprising orchestrations of some of his piano pieces. The final March blows away the cobwebs!