MENDELSSOHN: Concerto for Violin, Piano and Strings / Violin Concerto in D minor (Andrew Penny/ Benjamin Frith/ Marat Bisengaliev/ Northern Sinfonia) (Naxos: 8.553844)
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Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy was born into a wealthy Hamburg family in 1809, but shortly afterwards, when the French occupied the city, they moved to Berlin. All his early education was conducted by his parents, his mother responsible for teaching him the piano. He showed such interest in music that his parents enlisted the tuition of the finest musicians in Berlin. He was only nine when he made his piano debut, and we know that he was composing creditable compositions at the age of 11. Over the next two years his progress was phenomenal, and by his thirteenth year he had written a small catalogue of works, including a series of symphonies for strings and the G minor Piano Sonata. His next teenage phase produced the concerto for piano and strings; two concertos for two pianos; three piano quartets, and the first of the massive series of piano works, Songs without Words.
He was hailed as the finest composer since Mozart, and his progress even outstripped that famous name. But unlike Mozart he was gifted in many other artistic formats, and family wealth allowed him to travel throughout Europe to experience the music of others, and to meet great names in the artistic world.
The family house in Berlin was large enough to hold concerts and became a musical centre in Berlin, furthering the fortunes of the young man. There was a moment in his late teens when inspiration faltered, but by the age of 20 he was established as a major composer, with the Chair of Music at the University of Berlin offered to him the following year.
He continued to travel, visiting London and Rome, now as much in demand as a virtuoso pianist and conductor as he was a composer. In 1835 (aged 26) he was appointed conductor of the famous Leipzig Gewandhaus, and became largely responsible for music in the city. He still found time to travel conducting his own music and championing the music of others.
In 1841 he was invited to undertake the same task in Berlin as in Leipzig, which he entered into with enthusiasm. The promised finance never materialised, and the following year he returned to Leipzig to create a new Conservatory. Six years later he was journeying there from England when he learned of the death of his beloved sister, Fanny. He never recovered from the shock, and died a few months later aged 38. He left a catalogue of 121 published works and over 130 unpublished. In hindsight we find his style had developed little over the last 18 years of his life, but he represented the finest composer Germany produced in the early part of the 19th century.
Mendelssohn was just thirteen when he wrote the Violin Concerto in D minor for Eduard Rietz, his first violin teacher. Rietz was a most distinguished violinist who was to become leader of the Berlin court orchestra. By a torturous route the work, which had been dormant since its composition, came into the hands of Yehudi Menuhin in recent times. He was responsible for its revival and publication. In the conventional three movements, two happy allegros surround a central andante of great beauty. If it resembles the concertos of another of Mendelssohn's tutors, Pierre Rode, they were works of estimable value, and the young man added his own brand of melodic inspiration.
Fine though this work undoubtably is, the rapid strides Mendelssohn made can be appreciated by comparing this with Concerto for Piano and Violin composed just one year later. The sensitivity with which he balances two totally different instruments is the work of a master musician. He was not simply happy to give the orchestra a passive role of accompaniment, but provides it with passages of brilliance and considerable beauty. Also in the normal three movement layout, the central andante is unusual in giving both soloists quasi-cadenzas. There is a little hint of Weber in the lively third movement.
Joint winner of the famous Busoni International Piano Competition in 1986, and first prize in the Arthur Rubinstein Piano Master Competition in 1989, Benjamin Frith now enjoys a busy international career as soloist, chamber musician and teacher. Born in Sheffield, England, he has appeared in many parts of the United States, and throughout Europe, and has recently formed a duo partnership with Peter Hill to considerable acclaim in the concert hall. He has appeared with most of the major British orchestra, and is a frequent broadcaster. For Naxos he has made a number of recordings including the complete piano works of Mendelssohn (except the series 'Songs without Words'), together with the complete Piano Concertos of John Field.
Marat Bisengaliev was born in Kazakhstan in 1962, and moved to Moscow to study at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory with Boris Belinky and Valerie Klimov. He had major competition successes in Eastern Europe before settling in England and becoming a British subject. In 1993 he became a Naxos and Marco Polo recording artist, and drew critical acclaim from the Penguin Guide who described him as \a remarkable player", while the American Fanfare magazine commented that he is a player with "bravura excitement, warm, flowing tone, and awesome easy of execution". He now enjoys a busy concert and recital career in the UK, and made his American debut in 1995 with a Carnegie Hall recital.
Born in Hull in the north east of England, Andrew Penny initially studied clarinet at the Royal Northern College in Manchester, where he also worked as conductor of the Opera Unit. The award of the Rothschild Scholarship enabled him to study conducting with Sir Charles Groves and Timothy Reynish, and to work as assistant to Richard Hickox and Elgar Howarth. He subsequently studied with Sir Edward Downes and made a number of radio recordings in Holland and Britain, and concert performances with major orchestras in the UK, Ireland and Australia. In 1992 he began a long and productive relationship with the Marco Polo and Naxos record labels, which has seen a number of world premiere recordings, including Malcolm Arnold's Ninth Symphony.
The Northern Sinfonia is based in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and is the major chamber orchestra in the North of England. In the year 2001 they will be the proud occupants of a new concert hall being built for them. Their concerts mainly serve the north east of England, and with a core of around 50 musicians can act as both a chamber or, slightly augmented, as a symphony orchestra. They already have a vast catalogue of records, and have had a three year period recording eighteen discs for Naxos.
Made in All Saints Church, Gosforth, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, during July 1996.
With this disc Benjamin Frith completes the concertos Mendelssohn wrote for piano, and the American disc magazine Fanfare wrote "this is tasteful, skilled playing at a very high level, and I am pleased to make Frith's artistic acquaintance".