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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
The Complete Solo Concertos
1. Concerto in E minor for violin and orchestra, Op.64 (original 1844 version) [25:41]
2. Concerto in D minor for violin and string orchestra (1822-23) [20:19]
3. Concerto in D minor for violin, piano and string orchestra (1823) [33:19]
4. Capriccio brilliant for piano and orchestra, Op.22 (1825-26/1832) [10:26]
5. Rondo brilliant for piano and orchestra, Op. 29 (1834) [9:55]
6. Serenade and allegro giocoso for piano and orchestra, Op.43 (1838) [11:49]
7. Concerto in A minor for piano and string orchestra (1822) [31:40]
8. Concerto No.1 in G minor for piano and orchestra, Op.25 (1831) [18:45]
9. Concerto No.2 in D minor for piano and orchestra, Op.40 (1837) [20:33]
10. Concerto in E major for two pianos and orchestra (1823) [30:46]
11. Concerto in A flat major for two pianos and orchestra (1824) [41:19]
Isabelle van Keulen (violin) (1-3)
Ronald Brautigam (piano) (3-9)
Roland Pöntinen (piano I (10), piano II) (11)
Love Derwinger (piano I (11), piano II) (10)
Amsterdam Sinfonietta/Lev Markiz
rec. Waalse Kerk, Amsterdam, July 1998 (1), October 1995 (2); Concertgebouw, Haarlem, July 1995 (3), May 1995 (4-7), August 1994 (8-9), September 1994 (10-11) 
Only playable on SACD-compatible equipment
These recordings are also available as a 4CD set (BIS CD 966/68)
BIS BISSACD1766 [255:55]


Experience Classicsonline

No, it's not a misprint, this single disc really does contain more than four hours of music. The technique is simple enough; instead of offering a ‘hybrid’ with three playback options – stereo CD and multi-channel/stereo SACD – all the available space is devoted to a stereo-only SACD layer. BIS have done the same with Mendelssohn’s String Symphonies (BIS SACD 1738) and Bach’s Complete Organ Works (BIS SACD 1527/8). It's the kind of lateral thinking that makes BIS one of the most dynamic and forward-looking record labels around.

These Mendelssohn concertos may date from the 1990s but they are as fresh and invigorating as any in the catalogue. The disc opens with the 1844 version of the E minor violin concerto, the autograph score of which was rediscovered in 1989. For someone so dedicated to contemporary music the Dutch-born violinist Isabelle van Keulen responds sympathetically to this concerto. Her approach is bright-toned and clear-eyed but she seems a little cool in the Allegro con fuoco. That said, she conjures up some lovely sounds in the Andante that follows.

The Amsterdam Sinfonietta, formed in 1988, are equally crisp and clear. One might characterise their playing as well drilled, perhaps a little lacking in affection and Mendelssohnian 'bounce'. They do improve, though, and one soon warms to their lithe, athletic sound. Both soloist and orchestra make a spirited dash to the finish in the concluding Allegro.

By contrast the earlier D minor violin concerto – Mendelssohn was just 13 when he wrote it – is more of a leisurely walk, relaxed and full of gentle charm. There is a real sense of rapport between soloist and players, the music-making much more buoyant than before.  Van Keulen sounds warmer and more affectionate too, the Sinfonietta's lower strings particularly seductive. And if the first two movements are a stroll then the final Allegro is a short but bracing carriage ride. A winning performance of this most Mozartian of concertos.

The D minor concerto for violin, piano and strings is one of the most engaging pieces on this disc.  Ronald Brautigam, whose continuing Beethoven sonata cycle for BIS has garnered much praise, is an ideal partner for van Keulen. His pianism is understated but never dull, his playing unfailingly responsive. Indeed, there’s an intuitive intensity here that one usually associates with the very best chamber ensembles. Brautigam is mercurial but light of touch – surely Gottschalk ‘borrowed’ that scampering figure in the first movement for his Célèbre Tarantelle – and he always phrases with great naturalness, adding greatly to the air of spontaneous music-making. A deeply satisfying performance all round.

Mercurial is certainly the right word for Brautigam's playing in the virtuosic Capriccio, Rondo and Serenade. This isn't Mendelssohn at his best – the Rondo can seem a little threadbare – but it's diverting stuff nonetheless. The orchestra sounds a little fierce in the Capriccio, less so in the Rondo and Serenade, but the piano is well recorded in all three. Once again Brautigam shows good judgment, the scale of his readings just right for this music. Conductor Lev Markiz keeps his players in check during the soloist's star-turns yet responds with verve when required.

The Sinfonietta strings are splendid in the A minor concerto, playing with precision and bite in the outer movements and with gossamer lightness in the lovely Adagio. The recording is naturally balanced and the stereo spread is very convincing indeed. No qualms about the soloist either; Brautigam despatches the Allegro finale with his usual understated brilliance.

And there's virtuosity and weight aplenty in the big-boned G minor concerto, where the orchestra is in commanding form. As ever, there is a pleasing sense of proportion and balance to the performance, which is never compromised by empty showmanship. Just listen to the miraculous Andante, seven minutes of sustained loveliness, followed by a pulse-racing Presto. Definitely the highlight of this well-filled disc.

The less popular second concerto – in D minor – seems several shades darker than its predecessor. It has that imposing, rough-hewn quality one associates with Beethoven's later concertos. There is something of Brahms in the Presto but more than anything Brautigam’s searching performance makes one long to hear him in the ‘Emperor’. He has already recorded the first and third concertos on BIS SACD 1692.

By contrast the works for two pianos are much less memorable. And as splendid as Roland Pöntinen and Love Derwinger undoubtedly are these show-off pieces are hardly vintage Mendelssohn. Also, the recordings are on the bright side, which rather emphasises the surface glitter of this music.

So, hats off to Robert von Bahr at BIS for an enterprising release. Apart from offering exceptional value for money – four CDs for the price of one – the performances are top-notch too. But the real star is Ronald Brautigam, who plays with rare sensitivity and intelligence. Add to all these virtues full and informative liner-notes and you have a very desirable disc indeed.

Dan Morgan 



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