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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
The Complete Piano Music - 1
Capriccio in F sharp minor, op.5 (1825) [6:05]
Sonata in E, op.6 (1826) [23:36]
Sieben Charakterstücke, op.7 (1824-26) [27:21]
Sechs Lieder - book I, op.19b (1828-32) [17:04]
Howard Shelley (piano)
rec. St Michael's Church, Highgate, London, 26-27 March 2012. DDD
HYPERION CDA67935 [74:08]

One of the 19th century's most naturally gifted pianists performed by one of the 21st century's is the proposition for this new series from Hyperion. This bears all the signs of a chronological survey in six volumes of Mendelssohn's unfailingly genial music for solo piano.
 
On the evidence, even of the opening Capriccio in F sharp minor, it is hard to believe that Mendelssohn acquired a reputation for writing gemütliche Musik. In intelligent, detailed booklet notes, his biographer R Larry Todd discusses the likely reasons for this at some length. Though always recognised as a prodigious composer, brilliant pianist, first-rate conductor and highly significant musicologist, his essential 'Victorianism' became a millstone with the advent of modernism. Extreme facility and conservative musicianship rendered his corpus old-fashioned almost at a stroke, a view that is still widespread today - and one for which Todd himself sometimes hints at harbouring sympathy.
 
Yet the piano sonata in E, written by a boy in his mid teens, is a work of striking beauty and no little depth, a tribute to Beethoven that the latter would surely not have hesitated to perform. Howard Shelley gives an account that would have impressed both men, light-fingered and showing a dignified restraint in his pedalling. This serves as a reminder to other pianists that they should be performing this work a lot more often.
 
Written around the same time, the sequence of Seven Character Studies, a magical work timelessly mixing old and modern styles, is another nail in the coffin for accusers of Gemütlichkeit. Shelley is movingly expressive, reaching beneath the surface of Mendelssohn's score once again to find Beethoven, and then Bach.
 
Of the four works in Shelley's programme, the Sechs Lieder op.19b come closest to levity, although this has more to do with associations generated by generations of publishers. As Todd explains, the Sechs Lieder are generally known as 'Lieder ohne Worte' ('Songs without Words'), but this is wrong - this title, its English and French counterparts and individual 'song' titles are publisher confections rustled up for the public regardless of Mendelssohn's offended aesthetic.
 
Sound quality is very good, although the resonances associated with a church setting are somewhat restricted, toned down by a stereophony that is quite narrow. Nevertheless, this CD is a perfect place to start a Mendelssohn collection - even for those who already have a recording of these works.
 
Byzantion
Collected reviews and contact at artmusicreviews.co.uk
 

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