MENDELSSOHN: 6 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 35 / 3 Caprices, Op. 37 (Benjamin Frith/ Gary Cole) (Naxos: 8.550939)
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Felix Mendelssohn (1809 - 1847)
Six Preludes and Fugues, Op. 35
Three Caprices, Op. 33
Perpetuum mobile in C major, Op. 119
Felix Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg in 1809, son of the banker Abraham Mendelssohn and grandson of the great Jewish thinker Moses Mendelssohn, the model for Lessing's Nathan the Wise, the epitome of tolerance in a generally intolerant world. In 1812 the family moved to Berlin after the French occupation of Hamburg and it was there that Mendelssohn received his education, in music as a pupil of Carl Zelter, for whom the boy seemed a second Mozart. As a child he was charming and precocious, profiting from the wide cultural interests of his parents and relations, excelling as a pianist and busy with composition after composition. In 1816 he was baptized a Christian, a step that his father took six years later, accepting what Heine described as a ticket of admission into European culture, although it was one not always regarded as valid by prejudiced contemporaries.
Abraham Mendelssohn sought the best advice when it came to his son's choice of career. Cherubini, director of the Paris Conservatoire, was consulted, and, while complimenting Abraham Mendelssohn on his wealth, agreed that his son should become a professional musician, advice given during the course of a visit to Paris in 1825, when Mendelssohn met many of the most distinguished composers and performers of the day. In Berlin his career took shape, with prolific composition and activity as a pianist and as a conductor. His education was to include a period of travel throughout Europe, a Grand Tour that took him as far north as Scotland and as far south as Naples, his journeys serving as sources of inspiration.
In 1835 Mendelssohn was appointed conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. There were, at the same time, other commitments to be fulfilled in a short career of intense activity. In Leipzig he established a series of historical concerts, continuing the revival of earlier music on which he had embarked under Zelter with the Berlin performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion in 1829. At the same time he gave every encouragement to contemporary composers, even to those for whom he felt little sympathy. At the insistence of the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm IV he accepted an official position in Berlin, but this failed to give him the satisfaction he had found in Leipzig, where he established the Conservatory in 1843 and where he spent his final years until his death at the age of 38 on 4th November 1847, six months after the death of his beloved sister Fanny.
Mendelssohn's Six Preludes and Fugues, Opus 35, were written over a number of years and completed as a set in 1837. The first of the group, the Prelude and Fugue in E minor has a Prelude, marked Allegro con fuoco, with its scintillating arpeggios, written in 1837, to be paired with a Fugue written at the bedside of his dying friend August Hanstein ten years before. It leads to an impressive chorale at its climax. Prelude No.2 in D major, marked Allegretto, was written in 1836. It is coupled with a fugue, marked Tranquillo e sempre legato, written in 1835, the one a foil to the other. The third of the set, the Prelude and Fugue in B minor, starts with a rapid Prestissimo staccato in 12/8, a movement that twice reaches a dynamic climax, after which there is a renewed, if subdued, resumption of movement. The four-voice fugue, marked Allegro con brio, is a fine evocation of the late Baroque. Both Prelude and Fugue were written in 1832. The 1837 Prelude No.4 in A flat major, marked Con moto, offers a duet for upper parts, accompanied by left-hand figuration based on broken chords. The following Fugue, Con moto ma sostenuto, written in 1835, allows the voices to enter in ascending order and continues to use a number of traditional contrapuntal devices, of which Mendelssohn here displays his mastery. The following Prelude in F minor is marked Andante lento, a song without words, written in 1836 and accompanying an Allegro con fuoco fugue composed two years earlier.
The set ends with a Prelude and Fugue in B flat major, the first Maestoso and impressive in its majestic progress and the Allegro con brio fugue in full contrast. Prelude and Fugue were written in 1837 and 1836 respectively.
The Three Caprices, Opus 33, were written between 1833 and 1835 and dedicated to Mendelssohn's friend and companion on his tour of England, Scotland and Wales, Carl Klingemann. The first of the set, the Caprice in A minor, starts with the ascending arpeggios of an Adagio quasi Fantasia, plunging thereafter into a Presto agitato, from which a winning melody soon emerges. The second, the Caprice in E major, marked Allegro grazioso, has the charm of a Song without Words, now extended over much greater length. The third of the group, the Caprice in B flat minor, has an impressive Adagio opening, leading to the agitated mood that Mendelssohn often favoured, a Presto con fuoco.
Mendelssohn's Perpetuum mobile, Opus 119, has the lightness and delicacy, if not the rhythm, of a scherzo, an example of the composer's economy of means in an impressive piece of unremmitting perpetual motion.
The young British pianist Benjamin Frith has had a distinguished career. A pupil of Fanny Waterman, he won, at the age of fourteen, the British National Concerto Competition, followed by the award of the Mozart Memorial Prize and joint top prize in 1986 in the Italian Busoni International Piano Competition and in 1989 a Gold Medal and First prize in the Arthur Rubinstein Piano Master Competition. Benjamin Frith enjoys a busy international career, with engagements in the United States and throughout Europe as a soloist and recitalist, with festival appearances at Sheffield, Aldeburgh, Harrogate, Kuhmo, Bolzano, Savannah, Pasadena and Hong Kong and an Edinburgh Festival debut in 1992. His recordings include a highly praised performance of Beethoven;s Diabelli Variations on the ASV label and for Naxos a release of piano music by Schumann and the two Mendelssohn Piano Concertos.