MENDELSSOHN: The Complete Piano Music, Vol. II = Rondo capriccioso in E Major, Op. 14; Fantasia in E Major on ‘The Last Rose of Summer,’ Op. 15; Trois Fantasies or Caprices, Op. 16; Fantasia in F-sharp Minor, Op. 28 “Sonate ecossaise”; Lied in E-flat Major; Lied in A Major; Six Songs without Words, Op. 30; Six Songs without Words, OP. 38 – Howard Shelley, piano – Hyperion CDA68059, 73:45 (8/8/14) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:
Howard Shelley (24-26 June 2013) explores the keyboard music of Felix Mendelssohn, perhaps in an attempt to raise our estimation of the some 200 works that traditionally find themselves consigned to the “deftly charming.” At once polished, intelligent, and cosmetically elegant, Mendelssohn’s music receives the epithet “shallow” as much as it elicits admiration for its architectural and informed brilliance. Mendelssohn’s ambitions, too, seem modest in comparison to the epic proportions of the Beethoven and Brahms sonatas, the Liszt ecstasies, and the Chopin poetics. Instead, we glean from Mendelssohn the savvy and melodic character piece or the Bach imitation that conveys a Mediterranean verve and facile economy.
Shelley opens with the familiar 1824 Rondo capriccioso in E, Op. 14, a concert staple Bolet and Slenczynska have inscribed brilliantly. Shelley makes the impish figures dance and sweet passages sing, all the while commanding considerable power, martellato. More “original” to Mendelssohn piano’s oeuvre, the Fantasia on ‘The Last Rose of Summer,’ Op. 15 (c. 1828) takes a melody by John Stevenson and interpolates harp imitations, recitatives, and a Presto agitato in E Minor. Shelley provides fluency and some semblance of tension to link the disparate affect together. Mendelssohn wrote Trois fantasies ou caprices, Op. 16 for the daughters of one John Taylor of northern Wales. The A Minor/A Major No. 1 captures Scottish lyric and bagpipe elements. The second caprice in E Minor prefigures the gurgling fioritura we find in the G Minor Concerto as Shelley dashes it off. The liquid, arioso No. 3 almost hints at Chopin, but the harmonies remain too tame, the arpeggios and light scales conventionally optimistic.
With the Fantasia in F-sharp Minor (1829; rev. 1833), Shelley realizes a more profound architecture emergent from Mendelssohn, a hybrid sonata-fantasia in the manner of the Beethoven two sonatas-quasi-fantasia, Op. 27. A degree of “Scottish” folk influence suffuses the three-movement work in terms of drone effects, rolling arpeggios, and blurred harmonies. The plastic Allegro con moto second movement displays a Beethoven (contrapuntal) influence. Most dynamically agitated, the Presto finale adumbrates the Scottish Symphony, even asking Shelley to bring the “symphonic” character of the keyboard to the fore. For sheer dramatic juxtaposition, Shelley proffers two lieder Mendelssohn composed in response to “dares” from sister Fanny to create birthday sentiments. The second of the two, Lied in A Minor (1828), comprises fifteen bars, ending on a half cadence. Mendelssohn withheld publication of this charmer.
Mendelssohn dedicated his second volume of Lieder ohne Worte (1830-1835) to Elise von Woringen, daughter of a musical supporter. The variety of forms and melodic invention remain appealing, including a haunting Venetian Gondolier’s song at No. 6 of Op. 30. The B-flat Minor (No. 2) has a wrist-taxing propulsive energy. Often, Mendelssohn contrives two lines of cantilena, producing a solo duet. The E Major Adagio non troppo (No. 3) enjoys a parlando melodic line quite enchanting.
The 1837 set of Lieder ohne Worte owes much to various women in Mendelssohn’s life, including his new bride, Cecile Jeanrenaud. The sixth of the set, in A-flat, celebrates the happy couple, Duetto, in soprano and tenor voices. The virtuosic No. 3 in E Major, Presto e molto vivace, Mendelssohn conceived for one Clara Wieck. Beautiful playing from Shelley defines the No. 4 in A Major. Shelley calls our attention to the syncopated fifth of the set, A Minor: Agitato, which bears a family resemblance to Schubert’s Gothic lied Erlkoenig.