Do Mendelssohn's early Concertos for Two Pianos receive more
attention than they merit these days? If so, it makes up for
over a century of complete neglect; they were only first published
in the early 1960s. Today, however, they are doing very well
in the CD catalogues, a fact at least partly explained by the
relative paucity of great works in the genre.
Like almost all composing prodigies, Mendelssohn initially gained
fame for the fact that he was composing at all at such an early
age rather than for the quality of his music. It wasn't until
his Midsummer Night's Dream Overture at the age of 18
that he produced a lasting contribution to the repertoire. These
concertos predate that, and by my calculations were written
at the ages of 14 and 16. Those two years made a real difference
and the Second Concerto is by far the more accomplished. That
said, they are both attractive works, and the skill in their
construction is undeniable. The First is stylistically very
close to many of the String Symphonies, while the second moves
more towards the virtuoso styles of some of the great pianist-composers
of the day, early Chopin and perhaps Field. All the melodies
have bounce, but few are memorable. Contrapuntal development
plays out in textbook fashion, impressive but rarely engaging.
And structurally both works hold together well, although the
musical material doesn't really justify the huge length of either.
Even in his mature output, Mendelssohn rarely indulges in complex
or dense textures, and simplicity is certainly one of the virtues
of this music. It begs the question, though, of why two pianos
are required. It rarely sounds like two pianos, and while I
suspect there is a good deal of discourse between the solo instruments;
they are not separated in the stereo array in this recording,
so it is difficult to tell. They could both be more prominent
against the orchestra, although the sheer quantity of orchestral
music here suggests that the composer considered it an equal
partner. The pianists put in good performances, and never try
to milk the music for more emotion or substance than is there.
The performance style balances a fine line between the Classical
and the Romantic. Beethoven was, after all, still alive when
these works were written, and the very disciplined use of rubato,
by orchestra and pianists alike, alludes to the Classical conventions
that were surely still in force in 1820s Berlin. On the other
hand, the velvety string lines, the occasional cantabile indulgences
by the pianists, and the sheer size of the orchestra look forward
to Schumann and even Brahms.
This is music to just enjoy rather than to ponder at length,
and whilst its pleasures are simple, they are also numerous.
For me, the best of it is to be found in the finale of the Second
Concerto. The rondo theme, based on a descending four-note figure,
is about the most memorable on the disc. The pianos really take
the fore, and the orchestra only intercede to provide brief
up-beat tutti episodes that aren't a million miles from Haydn.
For all that classicism, you can really hear Mendelssohn's mature
voice forming. Both the soloists and the orchestra are more
indulgent here in terms of rubato and dynamic extremes, but
this more mature music can cope. It is as if the players had
been biding their time up to now, waiting for the composer's
famous sophistication to emerge. When it does, it is well worth