Classical CD Reviews

MENDELSSOHN: Lieder ohne Worte Books 1-4, and Five Individual Lieder ohne Worte – Ronald Brautigam, fortepiano – BIS

This wonderful music should really be heard on an instrument of the period; I doubt that you’ll find a better interpretation on pianoforte than Ronald Brautigam’s.

Published on February 20, 2013

MENDELSSOHN: Lieder ohne Worte Books 1-4, and Five Individual Lieder ohne Worte – Ronald Brautigam, fortepiano – BIS

MENDELSSOHN: Lieder ohne Worte Books 1-4 and Five Individual Lieder ohne Worte – Ronald Brautigam, fortepiano – BIS CD-1982 [Distr. by Qualiton], 69:19 ****: 

The forty-eight short piano pieces that make up Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words were written between 1829 and 1845. So they occupied the composer from his early maturity up to the time he found himself constantly in demand as traveling conductor shortly before his death. Book 1, the first group of six pieces, was published by Novello in London in 1832 but received its important moniker Songs without Words at Mendelssohn’s request when the German edition, published by Simrock, appeared in 1833.

As Horst Scholtz points out in his detailed notes to this recording, the very first piece in the series (Op. 19b No. 1 in E major, marked Andante con moto) establishes the fact that “the term ‘Song’ was not just a Romantic metaphor but also had musical justification. . . .” The bittersweet melody is “sung” “in the upper voice. . . above an arpeggiated accompaniment”; it seems to tell some story of love and its heartaches, just lacking the lyrics that would confirm this notion. Apropos of not much, if you’ve ever seen the 1944 film version of Jane Eyre starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine, you might recall that Jane plays this very piece for Rochester when he asks her for a sample of her musicianship. If what I’ve said about its emotional character is true, Op. 19b No. 1 is the perfect work for her to play, and it’s also perfect in another respect: when Jane Eyre appeared in 1847, Mendelssohn was the most popular composer in England, representing to the fullest the comfortable, conservative aesthetic of the Victorian era. Which is not to denigrate Mendelssohn’s wonderful music or to disregard its impact. The Songs without Words provided an immediate model for later composers such as Grieg and Tchaikovsky, who wrote similar groups of variegated lyrical pieces grouped together into a “book.” And if it’s maybe too much to suggest as Horst Scholtz does that Songs without Words anticipated the Lisztian symphonic poem (the direct descendant of the concert overture, which has a longer pedigree than the song without words), Mendelssohn’s music is both beloved and groundbreaking.

As well, however, the Songs without Words perfectly reflect Mendelssohn’s position as a Romantic composer with one foot firmly in the Classical era. Despite their literary overtones, the very abstractness of their “programs” means that these pieces avoid the vivid pictorialism of Berlioz’s and Liszt’s program music—or the brilliant audacity of Schumann’s character pieces from the very same period, for that matter.

The later books contain some of Mendelssohn’s greatest hits, such as the “Spring Song” (Op. 62 No. 6), but the first four books do feature three of the popular Venetian boat songs, the first (Op. 19b No. 6) probably a reminiscence of Mendelssohn’s 1830 Italian sojourn. Among the named pieces (which Mendelssohn probably knew would be favorites) from the first four books is “Hunting Song” (Op. 19b No. 3); “Folk Song” (Op. 53 No. 5); and most interesting of all, “Duet,” Op. 38 No. 6, a favorite of Schumann. It was written for Mendelssohn’s future wife, Cécile Jeanrenaud, and is clearly a musical love letter. True to its name, the melody appears alternately in the upper and middle registers, soprano and tenor sharing sweet nothings in turn. Besides his future wife, Mendelssohn dedicated individual pieces to a number of other ladies, most of them gifted pianists of the day, including Clara Wieck (later Clara Schumann). Mendelssohn wrote Op. 38 No. 3 in E major “for Miss Wieck to play very quickly.” It’s a wild presto that only a really skilled pianist could do full justice to.

All eight books of the Songs without Words fit comfortably on two CDs with room to spare, so they’re often issued with filler works. To give us almost seventy minutes of music, Ronald Brautigam includes five individual Songs without Words that were never collected; they’re as fine works as many of the published ones and are a welcome makeweight. Throughout, Brautigam plays with his usual polish and sensitivity; he’s really able to make an old piano sing as few others can. He plays a Paul McNulty pianoforte modeled on an 1830 Pleyel (Op. 1555). It has a very bright and attractive upper register, a somewhat recessive bass, and a middle register that takes a little getting used to. I have to say that I find its particular twanginess less than immediately appealing, but the more I listened, the fonder I became of its vocalizations, like a tenor with a less-than-beautiful instrument but an ability to capture the sentiment underlying the music.

Some of the pieces sound as though they were written with this particular instrument in mind, such as the gorgeous Op. 53 No. 2 in E-flat major, one Mendelssohn’s greatest. But Op. 19b No. 5 in F-sharp minor, marked Piano agitato, doesn’t come off well at all, I think. As required, Brautigam approaches it with a feather-light touch, but some of the notes hardly register, and I’m going to chalk that up to the “stickiness” of the pianoforte’s keys rather than to any failing on the part of the pianist. Overall, however, the combination of instrument and performer add up to an enjoyable and often thrilling musical experience.

This is such wonderful and central music that one interpretation won’t suffice for most collectors. But these pieces really should be heard on an instrument of the period; it’s truly enlightening. And I’m pretty sure that few interpretations on pianoforte will match the sympathy, skill, and sheer beauty of Ronald Brautigam’s. Bis’s lifelike SACD sound greatly enhances the experience. Here’s hoping that Brautigam will soon go on to record the other four books of Mendelssohn’s classic.

—Lee Passarella

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