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Music Media Review Print

A New and Original Complete Traversal of Mendelssohn's Works for Piano

March 4, 2022 - Easthampton, MA:

Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809-1847), Complete Works for Piano Solo, Ana-Marija Markovina, pianos (Bösendorfer, Imperial, Op. 44513, and Konzertflügel 280 VC, Op. 60954); Hänssler Classic, 12 CDs (in self-sealing paper sleeves) ph18043, © 2021, TT: 13 h, 38 m; accompanying booklet, Pp. 96; $50.72 via Amazon; $63.25 from Presto.

Felix was born in Hamburg, but the family moved to Berlin in 1811, and he, like JSB, ended up in Leipzig, in 1835, when he became the director of its Gewandhaus Orchestra. Leipzig was also the home of Johann Nepomuk Tröndlin (1790-1862), Vienna-trained piano builder, whose products Felix liked and had the Gewandhaus purchase for its facility; it had a school as well as a concert hall. Hence, at work Felix played a Viennese instrument, not a German one, making the Bösendorfer, also a Viennese firm, an excellent choice for these recordings. One (perhaps the first) of its products is in the Frederick Collection in Ashburnham, MA; I have heard it several times. I do not know if he had a Tröndlin in his home, but it's entirely possible: as the Gewandhaus' director, he might have had the loan of one of theirs; or Tröndlin may have given him one as a 'Thank You' for the sales to the Gewandhaus, as Graf gave one of his to the Schumanns as a wedding present (see my February review). Hearing/listening to his music on these instruments is downright enchanting, largely because of their differentiations among the voice registers, absent from modern cast-iron frame ones, that are designed for homogeneity: blended/pasteurized sounds, and for power, of which the Bösendorfers also have plenty.

His very first work for piano, a 1:04 Allegro in C-sharp, written in April 1820, two months after he turned 11, opens CD one; 19 more very short pieces, a few under-one-min fragments, all from 1820, follow before we arrive at the first movement of the first sonata, still in 1820, in July. All are catalogued as MWV U (= Mendelssohn-Werkverzeichnis, Wiesbaden: Breitkopf und Härtel, © 2009, Pp. 595; no explanation for the 'U': it's Klavier = keyboard, incl. four-hand, and a few have an 'M' for Schauspielmusik = theatre music (transcriptions by FMB for piano): in the shelf-code-like system devised by Dr. Ralf Wehner of the Sächsischen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Leipzig [= Saxon Academy of Sciences and Humanities in Leipzig] (booklet p. 49); an online version is apparently available from the LoC.

On the same page, Markovina quotes Dr. R. Larry Todd (of Duke University, author of the definitive biographies of Felix and Fanny, which I have read) concerning the value of the system and its influence on her interpretations and performance; 'LT' is used to give specific credits to him throughout the notes, including for track 21. Tracks 22 and 23 have the remaining two movements of that sonata, followed by two more brief pieces. CD 2 begins with another short piece, followed by the three movements of the second sonata and four more short pieces before we enter 1821. He clearly had difficulties writing in standard structured multi-movement forms: neither sonata was published by him; the only one he published was the first, Op. 6, composed beginning on 22 March 1826 (CD 4, trs 10-13); the two others were published in 1868, 21 years after his death, as Opp. 105 and 106. Some Fragments end abruptly, startlingly at first, making you wonder if there's a defect in the disk.

While this is an unusual way to listen to the works, very different from the way you hear them elsewhere, it is also very revealing and enlightening: it gives you an entirely different perspective on the music and the process of composing. You feel, especially with the early music, that you are accompanying the composer as he is experimenting, learning, teaching himself how to build forms and create works in genres that attract or interest him. He appears to be abandoning some pieces because he senses they are going nowhere or are leading to dead ends. Many are not fully polished in dynamics and expression. Felix never intended the public to hear some of them, after all!

You learn how a composer works: apparently very rarely in a steady stream. Each piece was written when the concept, idea, or melody came into his head, and often set aside for long periods of time before the mate(s) was/were conceived and created. All the fugues were written before their accompanying préludes, many years before in some cases; none of the sets of Lieder ohne Worte were written in their published order, again many years apart in some instances.

Only two of the 58 Songs Without Words he composed: CD 11, trs 23 and 24, remained in their order of composition when published as Lieder ohne Worte, Op. 85, Nos 4 and 5. Dutch pianist Ronald Brautigam recorded all of them on two SACDs playing a Paul McNulty replica of an 1830 Pleyel, serial number 1555, now in the Musée de la musique in Paris, on the Bis label, numbers 1982 and 1983 (I listened to mine again). Mendelssohn knew and played Érards and Pleyels when he and his elder sister Fanny (also a pianist and composer) visited Paris in 1816-17, when they also had lessons; he went again in 1825, when he also played a Broadwood, and yet again in 1831-2, when he heard Chopin (then newly arrived in town) play his piano concerto, Op. 11, on a Pleyel, and met him, as well as Clara Wieck (then 12); he bought an Érard and had it shipped to Berlin, and another in 1839, and played on Érards in England. Both he and his sister liked the French instruments (as do I). Both companies had their own concert halls in or adjacent to their 'factories' and offices; Érard moved to London during the French Revolution, and maintained that location for many years afterwards.

Markovina's clear, concise notes reveal all the details about the works to you, but they are very different from those you find in booklets accompanying the sets in standard CDs, because you learn things that are not in those, such as that three pieces (CD 8, trs 9 (Fugue, Op. 35, No. 5b, 10, LoW, Op.38, No. 3, and 13, LoW, Op. 53, No. 2 [1834 and LoWs, 1835]) are dedicated to Clara Wieck, and one later, CD 12, tr. 42, LoW, Op. 62, No. 3 [date ?], to Clara Schumann; and what Robert Schumann wrote about one Capriccio (CD 8, tr.16), No 2 of the three (not published in composed order) in Op. 33, that he reviewed in the April 1836 issue of his Zeitschrift für Musik magazine. Some pieces, gathered at the end of CD 11 and much of 12, are ones whose dates of composition cannot be determined.

While I would not want this to be the only way I could hear the music, I am certainly glad that I have it to be able to understand it better! It is informative and useful, not just for musicians and musicologists, but also for ordinary listeners and music lovers. Full disclosure: Mendelssohn is among my numerous 'desert island' composers, along with Alkan, Beethoven, Chopin, Couperin, Debussy, Fauré, Koechlin, Rameau, Ravel, Saint-Saëns, Schubert, Sgambati, and yet others, in alphabetical, not priority order; I'd have a hard time doing that!

Her playing is excellent, not to say spectacular, though in some fast pieces, I occasionally had the feeling that she had difficulty keeping up with the specified (perhaps later revised?) tempo. Markovina has made similar recordings of several other composers, her most impressive undertaking being those of C. P. E. Bach, in 26 CDs, completed in 2014 for the tricentennial of his birth on 8 March; I'd love to have them. Miklós Spányi has released them on period instruments on the Bis label, in 40 Vols (not available as a set), which creates some confusion for me - I own six of those. Other pianists have issued complete traversals, of course, but all in the published, not the composed order, of the works; as you can see, there's a big, not to say huge, difference.