performed by Rudolf Serkin and the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy
(cover image by Irene Ortiz)
It’s been some time since we’ve seen Mendelssohn around these parts, already more than a year, actually. That won’t do. We shan’t be giving him the abundant attention we have given (and will continue to give) to Mozart, at least not for now, but we can cover a truly delightful piece of his to begin a few weeks of piano concertos and piano related pieces.
As you may know from a number of articles I’ve mentioned it in, or from speaking to me in person, I have a discernible level of disdain for Mendelssohn’s violin concerto, but this work… it’s wonderful.
Trigger warning or whatever: I tend to find some of Mendelssohn’s work to be a bit dry, or whatever the appropriate word might be. Even his earliest works, like the string symphonies, obviously show a talent that I think may even make Wolfie jealous, but the downside to that is that some of it just isn’t very… exciting to me. Granted, works like the Scottish symphony are nothing short of exhilarating, so imagine my delight to come across a piece that has the same vivid exuberance.
By the time of the composition of this ‘first piano concerto,’ Mendelssohn had already written a piano concerto with strings, and two for two pianos, so this is by no means his first effort in the form. This work was composed in 1830-31, which puts it around the time of the composer’s fourth symphony (and Chopin’s piano concertos, and Berlioz’s history-changing Symphonie Fantastique). It was composed in Italy, but premiered in Munich on October 17, 1831 with the composer at the piano (and also conducting? I’m not sure).
The work is dedicated to one Delphine von Schauroth. Roger Dettmer at AllMusic says that “The concerto took shape in 1831 before and after morning calls on Delphine. … Felix dedicated the work to Delphine, but assured Fanny that he did not love her.” This isn’t the place to discuss any of Mendelssohn’s personal life (maybe actually it is, but not now) so we’ll move on to what I think is one of his most exciting works.
It’s a brief work, coming in at under 20 minutes, in three movements, as follows:
- Molto allegro con fuoco
- Presto- Molto allegro e vivace
So in short, I feel like this work balances Mendelssohn’s musical skill and panache and all that with the kind of almost overwhelmingly rich, showy excitement of a Liszt piano concerto, or the Saint-Saens Am cello concerto.
The first movement, slightly longer than the other two, immediately bursts to life. There is only a very brief orchestral introduction, like the revving of an engine warming up, before the piano enters. When listening to this, remember that, as Francis Pott says at Hyperion:
Liszt, incidentally, had just met Mendelssohn in Paris when, at the Erard piano showrooms, he was shown the new and barely legible score of this concerto. ‘A miracle, a miracle!’ exclaimed Mendelssohn to Hiller afterwards, having just witnessed Liszt sit down and play the work easily at sight (Alan Walker: Franz Liszt: The Virtuoso Years, 1811–1847; Faber and Faber, London, 1983). Whatever Mendelssohn’s subsequent opinion of how Liszt used his gifts, there can be no doubt that he was bowled over by their awesome extent.
Imagine a work as exciting and rich as this being sightread to the composer’s approval. That must have been jaw-dropping. The work is not opulent or as overtly Romantic as Liszt or almost any others of the time, and in fact Pott describes it on multiple occasions as ‘concise,’ but it is a remarkably exciting balance of Classical brevity and straightforwardness with Romantic punch and vigor. We don’t even really need to discuss the nuts and bolts of the material and their keys because this music is just so absolutely engaging, absolutely breathtaking, a quintessential piano concerto, or what I at least feel one should be.
By interesting sleight of hand we arrive at the central movement, arranged so as to avoid any opportunity for the between-movement applause the composer so hated. Pott says:
The recapitulation saves its surprises for the expected peroration, but this never arrives and is replaced by a dramatic brass entry on a chord of B major. This diverts the music, via a brief but introspective cadenza, directly into the slow movement, a soulful Andante in triple time.
The central movement is warm and tender and melt-your-heart beautiful, to me a forebear to the richness and lyricism of what we would later hear from, say, Rachmaninoff. The piano is quite busy in this central movement, even if the movement itself doesn’t sound busy, per se. It’s rippling and undulating and glimmering, but relaxed. The finesse here, not only by Mendelssohn, but surely by Serkin, is remarkable. We are again led by dramatic pause to the finale.
“The finale produces another of those tunes apt to delight listeners while deterring those proud of an elevated taste from admitting their enthusiasm,” says Pott in a statement that must certainly be something I agree with almost as much as any quote I’ve ever shared. This finale is undeniably satisfying and rewarding, and whether you see it as a captivating work of genius or a guilty pleasure compared to your normally more refined (or ‘elevated’) or intellectual tastes, it’s irrefutably magnificent.
As brief as this little concerto is, it checks off really all the boxes: it’s got the polish and cleanness of what you might imagine would be a Mozartian piano concerto had he lived a few decades more, but also begins to embrace the Romantic era as much as we may ever hear Mendelssohn do; the first movement is dramatic, as is the finale, but in a much sunnier way. What could you possibly want in a piano concerto that isn’t here? Even if the answer to that question is some kind of Russian grandness or epic length, I think you can’t help but be inspired and delighted by the perfectly balanced sense of opulence in this work. It is rapturous, and you should listen to it at least a few times today.
That’s going to be all for Mendelssohn for a while, but what a remarkably satisfying little ride that was! We’ll be sticking with something relatively close to this era this week, and jump ahead more than a century for next week’s piano concertos, so please stay tuned for that and thanks so much for reading.