Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Sechs Präludien und Fugen op. 35 (1831-37) [40:19]
Ouvertüre zum Sommernachtstraum
(arr. for Piano for 4 Hands by Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy) (1826, arr. 1832) [11:28]
Andante con Variazioni op. 83a (1841) (version for 4 Hands, 1844) [11:38]
Andante und Allegro assai vivace op. 92 (1841) [10:50]
Mi-Joo Lee (piano); Klaus Hellwig (piano, Ouvertüre, Andante opp.83a, 92)
rec. 25-27 January 2010, Ackerhaus der Abtei Marienmünster
Felix Mendelssohn is recognised for helping revive the reputation of J.S. Bach, but it was his mother who encouraged Felix and his sister Fanny to play Bach. This early keyboard exploration of Bach’s forms and counterpoint is no doubt responsible for the many fugues and preludes in Mendelssohn’s output, and the Sechs Präludien und Fugen op. 35 are prime examples. The shapes of the fugue themes in particular echo Bach’s model, and it is impossible to hear the opening of the A flat major fugue, for instance, without thinking of the Well Tempered Clavier. Mendelssohn’s song-like flow and love of chorales are all part of the mix, and the pieces are by no means a pale imitation of Bach. Not conceived as a cycle, these preludes & fugues nevertheless traverse a wide range of approaches and styles, creating a nicely contrasting set. The adaptation of Mendelssohn’s idiom into ‘antique’ styles of polyphony results in the kind of intensification of ideas within a fugue which makes for a variation-form feel and grand climaxes. Mendelssohn’s skill however maintains a sincere clarity, and even where all the stops are pulled out one can sense a lack of pomposity and bombast – ably assisted of course by the fine playing of Mi-Joo Lee. Schumann was famously inspired to state that Mendelssohn’s Preludes & Fugues were “birches, where Bach once placed such mighty oaks...” and “compositions born of the spirit and executed in poetic style.”
The playing of piano duets was a strong element of music making in households at this time, and the Mendelssohn residence was no exception. Arrangements of the latest symphonic or operatic hits would inevitably have arrangements made, and be made widely popular through domestic use. The problem with Mendelssohn and his sister Fanny is that they had far too much skill and fun, and would play through all kinds of repertoire without needing to go through all the tedious effort of writing down the notes. As a result there is very little of Mendelssohn’s own work in this genre which reaches us. The Ouvertüre zum Sommernachtstraum was eventually arranged for piano duet in a simplified but still highly virtuosic form - the one developed by Felix and Fanny over numerous performances done from the score must have been remarkable indeed. This is always a refreshingly inspired piece, and comes across with plenty of colour and sparkle from the duet on this recording.
The Andante con Variazioni op. 83a is an arrangement and expansion of the original Op.83 version for two hands, made in haste by Mendelssohn for one of Fanny’s ‘Sonntagsmusiken’ concerts. The original five variations received an additional three movements, and the whole given plenty of extra technical fireworks. The Andante und Allegro assai vivace op. 92 was especially written for and appeared on the 1841 Leipzig Gewandhaus programme played by Felix Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann, the same concert at which Schumann’s first symphony was premiered. There is a certain amount of editorial interest with this piece, with the first published engraving being derived from an incomplete draft and not the final copy, which was first published only in 1994. The best known element is the Allegro, which is here preceded with the more recently added Andante introduction. Of all the pieces here this is the most remarkable in terms of its musical content – the virtuoso elements taking hold of the textural content of the work in ways which can take you quite by surprise, almost approaching the kinds of thing I’ve become more used to hearing in MDG’s ‘Player Piano’ series.
Mi-Joo Lee has received justified plaudits for her previous recordings of Schumann and Saint-Saëns on the MDG label, and fans will have plenty to entertain them with this Mendelssohn disc. The duet pieces with Klaus Hellwig are technically flawless and very sensitively performed in true chamber music style, and there are few enough recordings of this repertoire around to make this a very welcome top-flight addition to the catalogue. There is a bit of lower mid-range bloom in the piano sound, but any mild sponginess snaps more into focus with SACD decoding. I have no doubt MDG’s 2+2+2 setup would bring even more improvements, but in essence the sound is very good all round, with plenty of depth and colour.
Dominy Clements
Technically flawless and very sensitively performed.