Notes and Editorial Reviews
Piano Concertos: No. 1 in g; No. 2 in d. Symphony No. 5,
Louis Lortie (pn, cond); Quebec SO
ATMA 2617 (64:06)
In all, Mendelssohn wrote seven concertos—eight, if you count a recently reconstituted one he left unfinished. Four of them date from the composer’s early adolescent years, 1822–1824: the Piano Concerto in A-Minor, the Concerto for Violin and Piano in D-Minor, and the two concertos for two pianos. The three remaining concertos—the two for piano in G-Minor and D Minor, and the E-Minor Violin Concerto—are works of Mendelssohn’s maturity, dating from 1830, 1837, and 1844, respectively. The unfinished eighth, a concerto for piano in E-Minor, is believed to date from around the same time as the Violin Concerto. The three completed, mature works are exemplary Mendelssohn and contain some of his finest and most characteristic writing. The last in the series, the Violin Concerto, achieves the highest level of perfection and may, in fact, be Mendelssohn’s greatest work. But the two piano concertos are wonderful music, brimming with melody, bursting with high spirits, and bustling with the composer’s signature indefatigable energy.
Remarkable, too, is Mendelssohn’s dispensing with the Classical double-exposition format in which the orchestra precedes the soloist with a full account of the thematic material. Beethoven had opened the door to this in his Fourth and Fifth Piano Concertos, but after the soloist presents an opening gambit, the full orchestral exposition ensues. Not so with Mendelssohn. Soloist and orchestra engage immediately in a single, combined exposition, thereby considerably foreshortening the first movement. Form, as it is said, follows function; and the function in Mendelssohn is all about the drama. Beethoven’s
Sturm und Drang
becomes in Mendelssohn a virtual cataract of rushing notes that plunge and tumble ever faster and more breathlessly to the finish. I believe it was Aaron Copland, speaking of tempo relationships, who said of Mendelssohn, “All of his slow music is fast music played slow.” And how true that is in the Andante and Adagio movements of these concertos in which the gorgeous melodies—songs without words, really—are spun out over moving harmonic progressions that allow for no flagging of the forward momentum.
For all their hubbub and scintillating passagework, these concertos are probably not as difficult for the soloist as they sound. Brilliant pianist that he was, Mendelssohn’s keyboard writing is innate to the instrument, its patterns and figurations falling naturally under the fingers. This likely explains why, in my experience at least, there are no technically flawed performances of these works. Louis Lortie, a long-time and distinguished Chandos label artist, thus joins some half a hundred pianists before him that have recorded these works. And while my first recording with Serkin, Ormandy, and the Philadelphia Orchestra on a Columbia LP (now transferred to CD) remains my favorite for its knock-’em-dead tempestuousness and impetuosity, I also have high regard for Murray Perahia’s somewhat lower voltage, more Classical approach with Marriner and the ASMF on Sony. On the new Atma release, Lortie nears Serkin’s tempos, but doesn’t quite fire up the Quebec Symphony Orchestra to the same level of ferocity as Ormandy did the Philadelphians. Lortie’s readings thus fall somewhere between the sizzling Serkin and the more patrician Perahia, which is to say you get a little of each or the best of both in beautifully played and superbly recorded performances.
At first glance, it would seem a generously filled disc indeed that includes both concertos and the composer’s “Reformation” Symphony. But the total timing of just over 64 minutes is revealing of just how compact these works are. For all the notes Mendelssohn crammed into his scores, he was not a composer given to the longueurs of some others.
The last of his symphonies to be published, and thus to receive the last number, the “Reformation” Symphony (No. 5) did not appear in print until 1868, over two decades after Mendelssohn’s death. Chronologically, however, it was the second in order of writing, having been begun in 1829, following completion of the Symphony No. 1 in C-Minor in 1824. The “Reformation” was composed to honor the 300th anniversary in 1830 of Martin Luther’s Confession of Augsbourg. Early performances of the work were not well received, and were a disappointment to Mendelssohn who, at the age of 20, apparently took his family’s conversion to Christianity seriously. It seems, however, that no one else did. Once a Jew always a Jew was the attitude of the Berliners who attended the premiere and expressed a degree of hostility towards the composer’s Protestant pretensions. Mendelssohn came to detest the piece, and rued having written it. Perhaps its most memorable moment is the so-called “Dresden Amen” passage in the first movement, a sequence Wagner would later use in
As with the piano concertos, I can’t really cite a bad performance of the “Reformation” Symphony, though three that I find more to my liking than others are those with Claus Peter Flor and the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra (RCA), Abbado with the London Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon), and Colin Davis with the Bavarian RSO (Orfeo). The new version with Louis Lortie conducting again finds a comfortable middle ground in terms of tempos and interpretive choices, of which there aren’t that many to be made in this score. His reading may not be quite as fervent and devotional as Abbado’s or as rousing as Flor’s, but it’s on a par with the finely tuned and well balanced Davis. With the two concertos and the symphony, all neatly attended to, well recorded, and on one CD, this gets a thumbs-up recommendation.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins