MENDELSSOHN: Variations Serieuses, Op. 54; Fantasy in F-sharp Minor, Op. 28; Scherzo a Capriccio in F-sharp Minor; Andante and Rondo Capriccioso, Op. 14; Prelude and Fugue in E Minor, Op. 35, No. 1; Prelude and Fugue in B Minor, Op. 35, No. 2; Prelude and Fugue in D Major, Op. 35, No. 3; Scherzo in B Minor – Anton Kuerti, piano – Doremi DDR-6610, 57:31 [Distr. by Allegro] ****:
Austrian piano virtuoso Anton Kuerti (b. 1938), who has for many years resided in Canada, demonstrates his unflagging wizardry in the music of Felix Mendelssohn, recorded 1970 and 2009, respectively. The major work on this diverse program, the 1841 Variations serieuses, receives a brilliant rendition from Kuerti, whose capacities for contrapuntal clarity were perfected by masters Mieczyslaw Horszowski and Rudolf Serkin. The piece, a chorale theme followed by seventeen variations and a coda, traverse virtually every keyboard technique while maintaining an earnestness of purpose that music had not enjoyed since Beethoven. The animato Variation 3 has our ears, only to induce Variation 5 animato to thicken the texture in heated fashion. The tenth variation, fugato, continues those Bach exercises Mendelssohn had initiated in his Op. 35 set of Preludes and Fugues. Kuerti’s intense staccati bedazzle, and his legato has the appeal of a thoughtful dream. Variation 14 moves the chorale theme into the major, and the ensuing variation allows the right hand its luminous syncopes. The final variation, Presto, achieves a potent climax and cadenza, only to proceed to a diminished chord that dissolves the procession into a mirage from whose light we still shudder.
The so-called “Scottish Fantasy,” Op. 28 in three sections exerts a folk aura first marked Con moto agitato invokes highland storms and haunted moors. The toccata elements in the filigree have a wickedly devoted acolyte in Kuerti, who makes the piece thrilling to hear. A more bucolic affect invests the second section, Allegro con moto, rife with meadows and sunlight. The quality of the melody could be mistaken for Schumann, but the subsequent polyphony remains intrinsically Mendelssohn’s. The Presto takes us north to a rugged seacoast, tumultuous as his Hebrides Overture. The change to major does not particularly soften the Beethoven Fifth effect of four notes in constant development and often contrapuntal application. Kuerti convinces us that the sturm und drang of this work bears comparison to the great keyboard scores of the period.
In the midst of Mendelssohn’s elfin pieces de bravura, we have the oft-neglected Scherzo a Capriccio, a nervously vibrant display piece of the first magnitude. Kuerti’s wont for light and steely fingers takes a more pesant approach here, but the quasi-march tune in Scottish tropes that arises enjoys a carillon sound. The ubiquitous Andante and Rondo Capriccioso in E Minor receives a loving performance, beginning with a Schubertian lyric that soon explodes in scurrying rondo figures that culminate in a dazzling coda in big chords.
The set of three Preludes and Fugues and the little Scherzo in B Minor date from 1970 in Walter Hall, Toronto. The Preludes and Fugues are the products of Mendelssohn’s efforts (in six such works) 1832-1837 to revive Bach’s forms more scrupulously than had Chopin in his free-form Preludes, Op. 28. The Praeludium of the E Minor (Allegro con fuoco) has Kuerti in resonant arpeggios and mellifluous voice in imitation of Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy or the Gigue from the Partita No. 1. The ensuing Andante espessivo Fuga rises to an E Major height consonant with the great organ chorales with or without Busoni. The B Minor Prelude and Fugue of 1836 opens with a bustling Allegretto in the manner of Bach’s frequent calls to arms among spiritual crusaders. The moody Tranquillo e sempre legato Fugue enjoys a meditative mystery of natural piety. The D Major is a pure toccata, beginning with a furious Prestissimo staccato that Kuerti manages with an éclat worthy of Horowitz. The Fugue is marked Allegro con brio, and Kuerti asserts its extroverted energies with unbuttoned vigor.
We can cite Kuerti’s take on the minuscule Scherzo in B minor as “one of the shortest pieces ever written, but nonetheless [giving] us a wonderful whiff of Mendelssohn’s character, humor and originality.” Its plastic and effervescent whims set the tone for much of Moszkowski’s oeuvre. Quite a dazzling hour from master Kuerti, thank you.