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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Octet in E flat major, Op. 20 (Original Version for Piano 4 Hands) [35:13]
Overture “The Hebrides” in B minor, Op. 26 [9:39]
Sonata Movement in G minor [4:01]
Song Without Words in E flat major, Op. 67 No. 1 [3:03]
Duo Lontano (Babette Hierholzer and Jürgen Appell – piano duet)
rec. 2014, Mendelssohnsaal, Gewandhaus, Leipzig, Germany
GENUIN GEN15359 [52:00]

The nineteenth century was the heyday of the piano duet – music-making that, among other things, gave aficionados the chance to play orchestral and vocal works in the comfort of their own home. It was especially important in places where full-scale symphonic or theatrical performances weren’t that frequent or informed. This was after all long before the days of recordings or radio.

Mendelssohn was a gifted pianist, and also very fond of domestic music-making. While he wrote only a handful of original works for the medium, his thematic catalogue contains no fewer than eighteen arrangements of his own pieces for piano duet. These include two symphonies, a string quartet, several overtures, and the complete score of his incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The accompanying booklet is written by the two pianists and translated into German, French and Italian respectively. When discussing the first work on the CD, Hierholzer and Appell conclude that ‘the version (of the Octet) for piano four hands is equal in musical qualities to the string version’. They go on to say, ‘It is amazing that Mendelssohn was able to integrate all the voices without overloading the piano transcription’. It would be fair to make this assumption when comparing Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ with Ravel’s brilliant orchestration of the original oeuvre for piano – each can be as effective in performance as the other, a single pianist holding their own against the might of a full symphony orchestra. However in Mendelssohn’s case, it is more still by way of a transcription – four hands now doing the job of eight individual string players – rather than Ravel’s total regeneration of Mussorgsky’s musical concept.

True there are many figurations which can suit both string instruments and the piano, but there are also some where either instrument really does it better. What nearly always comes over when listening to Mendelssohn’s Octet, irrespective of how many times you’ve heard it, is the sheer exuberance, joie de vivre and precocity of this true masterpiece from a mere lad of sixteen. It is not yet-to-be-developed talent, but already the really thing, fully-fledged perfection and virtuosity from one so young.

Listening to the opening ‘Allegro moderato ma con fuoco’ in the piano-duet version, there is just that sense of immediacy missing – perhaps a bit too much ‘moderato’ and not enough ‘fuoco’ (‘fire’)? Translate this into track times, and while Duo Lontano takes 15:10 to get through the movement, two randomly-chosen CDs – Kodály and Auer Quartets (Naxos 8.557270) and Divertimenti (Hyperion CDA66356) have times of 14:15 and 14:12 respectively. Not surprisingly, as far as the slow movement is concerned, the piano-duet version wins here at 7:01, while the string CDs have 7:22 and 7:52. Strings have all the advantages of dynamic shading within a note, as well as vibrato, whereas the piano sound decays from the moment the hammer hits the string.

The immensely fleet-of foot Scherzo again lends itself more to the delicacy of the bow, whereas even the most finely-regulated Steinway grand, as is used here, has to transmit the pianist’s finger-articulation mechanically to the action: the piano-duet version takes 5:32, whereas the two string versions undercut this by 1:13 and 1:07 respectively. The finale, with its contrapuntal complexities is a veritable tour de force. While Hierholzer and Appell applaud Mendelssohn’s sheer ability to emulate the same string texture with the significantly more limited resources of just four hands, it does come at a cost. Yes, it might be reasoned that the choice of a slower ‘Presto’ for the four-hands version does allow the listener a little more time to pick out and follow thematic strands. However, it again robs the music somewhat of its pure panache and élan – string versions here are 5:53, and 6:15, while the piano transcription comes in at over a minute slower at 7:30.

From Mendelssohn’s best-loved chamber work, the Duo turns to one of his concert-hall favourites – the Hebrides Overture. Here they despatch the work in 9:39, but by the nature of the writing and texture, orchestral performances can vary here, for example, from just 9:00 (Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment) to 10:01 (London Symphony Orchestra) – both Hyperion downloads.

The Sonata movement for two pianos in G minor – which comes without title or tempo-marking – is apparently a work from the young Mendelssohn, written when a mere eleven years old. Despite its brevity (4:01 – and this includes a repeated exposition), and the fact that it’s the only original duet piece on the CD, this work strangely proves of greater interest than what has preceded it so far. Having two pianos available gives much more textural freedom than two pianists crammed onto one. The clarity of the writing, thematic development, and musical ideas make this even more impressive, when it’s from the pen of an eleven-year-old boy. The sleeve-notes inform us that Mendelssohn wrote another Sonata for Two Pianos in D major – this time replete with three movements – so it’s a pity that this couldn’t somehow have found its way on to the CD. At just 52 minutes in length, it isn’t overly generous to start with.

The closing track is a piano-four-hand transcription of one of the composer’s Songs Without Words – a serenely-flowing ‘Andante cantabile’. This is a work which Mendelssohn in fact dedicated to Queen Victoria as a token of his gratitude for the court’s hospitality while he was staying in London. As with the other duet versions of some of his Lieder ohne Worte it is a pleasant and effective reworking.

There are also a couple of illustrations in the booklet, but frankly, the first one (the first twenty bars of the Hebrides Overture in the composer’s hand), and the second (an excerpt from a letter from the composer to his family in Berlin) are too small, and lack visual definition. Their inclusion lacks any real value.

The piano sound, recording, and pianists’ technical performance and ensemble are first-rate. However, apart from a fleeting interest in the one original work recorded, it would be hard otherwise to see any place for this CD in the average collection.
Philip R Buttall



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