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MENDELSSOHN: Songs Without Words; Andante and Rondo capriccioso – Ania Dorfmann, p. – Pristine Audio (2 CDs)

Mark Obert-Thorn restores Ania Dorfmann’s impressive effort in the complete set of Mendelssohn’s poetic tone-pictures. 

MENDELSSOHN: Songs Without Words; Andante and Rondo capriccioso, Op. 14 – Ania Dorfmann, p. – Pristine Audio PAKM 069 (2 CDs), TT: 2:12:21 [avail. in various formats from www.pristineclassical.com] ****:  

In his extensive “Producer’s Note,” Mark Obert-Thorn justly laments the fact that Russian pianist Ania Dorfamnn (1899-1984) remains in the collective memory of classical music enthusiasts as a “singular success,” her having recorded the C Major Beethoven Piano Concerto with Arturo Toscanini. Happily, thanks to the compact disc medium, much of her recorded legacy – excepting the Chopin waltzes – has returned, documentation of her wide-ranging gifts in Romantic repertory, with an occasional visit to contemporary music, specifically Menotti. Obert-Thorn restores her survey of the complete Mendelssohn Songs Without Words (rec. October – December 1956) and the brilliant Rondo capriccioso (12-13 January 1953), salon works in eight books that frequently attain a modest virtuoso status. Mendelssohn, himself a fine pianist, often writes left-hand accompaniments that demand wide leaps, while the fleetest of these miniatures asks for a firm tenor or soprano melodic line. When the RCA Victor set (LM 6128) had a review in 1957, the commentator noted Dorfmann as “the leading interpreter of Mendelssohn’s keyboard music” who in this set “more than lives up to her reputation.”

Though the titles that accompany many of these works seem apt and programmatic, they mostly appeared through the ambitions of publishers.  The Venetian Boat Songs may well be the result of the composer’s sojourn to Venice in 1830. The lied provided Mendelssohn his three-part structure, often requiring that the melodic line be doubled in thirds or sixths. The so-called “Hunting Song,” Op. 19, No. 3 (1832) does enjoy a clarion energy.  The Op. 30 set of six (1835) combine his classical, contrapuntal background with his gifts for cantilena and rhythmic excitement, as in “Unrest,” Op. 30, No. 2, galloping between b-flat minor and its relative D-flat Major. Dorfmann plays rather pesant the ensuing “Consolation,” Op. 30, No. 3, and she exhibits a real tension in “The Wanderer,” Op. 30, No. 4 with its agitated sixteenths. “The Brook,” Op. 30, No. 5 goes one better, asking for fleet thirty-second notes, a kind of moto perpetuo etude in miniature. The uplifting Venetian Boat Song in this set imitates aspects of Chopin’s mazurka technique, blurring the rhythmic distinction between 6/8 and 3/4.  Dorfmann’s light, flexible trill warrants the price of admission.  Of the Op. 38 set of six, the “Lost Happiness,” the No. 2, exerts a forthright, assured melodic line, and it successor, “The Poet’s Harp,” rings with arpeggiated fervor.  The most famous of this set, “Duet,” Op. 38, No. 6, virtually compresses the Mendelssohn style into a refined, poetic space. For a more austere, “sensitive” affect, try Dorfmann’s noble “Sadness of Soul,” Op. 53, No. 4 for a sustained melodic contour in a relatively large piece that approaches sonata-form proportions.

Disc 2 contains the majority of better-known tone-poems, including “May Breezes,” Op. 62, No. 1; “Spring Song,”Op. 62, No. 6; “Spinning Song,” Op. 67, No. 4;  “The Shepherd’s Complaint,” Op. 67, No. 5 and “Elegy,” Op. 85, No. 4. These enjoy a vibrantly light, even heroic, energy, when called for – for example. Dorfmann’s reading of “The Departure,” Op. 62, No. 2 might be construed as a declamatory piece by Schumann or Beethoven. After having auditioned the stentorian “Funeral March,” Op. 62, No. 3, I went ahead to the 1845 “The Sighing Wind,” Op. 102, No. 4, whose g affect bears a tragic lilt quite close to Chopin that Dorfmann renders tastefully and architecturally. For a concentrated etude, “The Adieu,” Op. 85, No. 2 serves as well as any Beethoven bagatelle. At Mendelssohn’s death in 1847, several of his salon pieces had been circulating among his friends and colleagues; Simrock, his publisher in Germany, gathered these works for posthumous inclusion for the Books, Op. 85 and Op. 102. “Elegie” certainly justifies Simrock’s decision. A piece like “The Return,” Op. 85, No. 5, in its folkish simplicity, must have inspired Edvard Grieg. If one wishes to find Schubert in this compendium of miniatures, surely “Song of the Traveler,” Op. 85, No. 6 merits the comparison. Dorfmann includes the posthumous “Boat Song” as the final entry, whose mid-point diminuendo makes for an unsentimental moment of affection. From Hofmann to Bolet, there have been esteemed renditions of the 1828 Op. 14 Andante and Rondo capriccioso in E Major, a work refined in leggiero effects. Dorfmann lulls and then propels us into this keyboard whirlwind, much akin in spirit to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. For over two hours, we have been reminded that Ania Dorfmann possessed impressive gifts as a fine acolyte in the music she championed.

—Gary Lemco

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