MENDELSSOHN: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 / Capriccio Brillant / Rondo Brillant (Benjamin Frith/ Robert Stankovsky/ Rudolf Hentsel/ Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra) (Naxos: 8.550681)
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Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809 - 1847)
Piano Concerto No.1 in G Minor, Op. 25
Piano Concerto No.2 in D Minor, Op. 40
Capriccio Brillant in B Minor, Op. 22
Rondo Brillant in E Flat Major, Op. 29
Felix Mendelssohn, grandson of Moses Mendelssohn, the greatJewish thinker of the Enlightenment, was born in Hamburg in 1809, the son of a prosperousbanker. His family was influential in cultural circles, and he and his sister wereeducated in an environment that encouraged both musical and general cultural interests. Atthe same time the extensive acquaintance of the Mendelssohns among artists and men ofletters brought an unusual breadth of mind, a stimulus to natural curiosity.
Much of Mendelssohn's childhood was passed in Berlin, where hisparents moved when he was three, to escape Napoleonic invasion. There he took lessons fromGoethe's much admired Zelter, who introduced him to the old poet in Weimar. The choice ofa career in music was eventually decided on the advice of Cherubini, consulted by AbrahamMendelssohn in Paris, where he was director of the Conservatoire. There followed a periodof further education, a Grand Tour of Europe that took him south to Italy and north toScotland. His professional career began in earnest with his appointment as generaldirector of music in D??sseldorf in 1833.
Mendelssohn's subsequent career was intense and brief. Hesettled in Leipzig as conductor of the Gewandhaus concerts, and was instrumental inestablishing the Conservatory there. Briefly lured to Berlin by the King of Prussia and bythe importunity of his family, he spent an unsatisfactory year or so as director of themusic section of the Academy of Arts, providing music for a revival of classical dramaunder royal encouragement. This appointment he was glad to relinquish in 1844, laterreturning to his old position in Leipzig, where he died in 1847.
As a boy Mendelssohn had tried his hand at the composition ofconcertos for one or two pianos, and had also written a concerto for piano and violin. Inmaturity he was to write two piano concertos, the first of which, in G minor, was composedhurriedly, as he made his way back from Italy, and written down three days before thefirst performance, on 17th October 1832 in Munich, with the composer as soloist.
The G Minor Concerto is unusual in a number of ways. Inparticular Mendelssohn dispenses with the customary orchestral exposition, as he was to doin the later Violin Concerto, allowing the orchestra a mere seven bars of introduction,before the brilliant intervention of the soloist. The stormy first theme leads to a secondsubject that is gentler in character, experimenting in the use of less usual keys. Thecentral development section of the movement is followed by the briefest ofrecapitulations, ending in a fanfare, before the pianist leads the way into the E majorslow movement, which might almost be an orchestrated Songwithout Words. The trumpets and French horns herald the start of the lastmovement, with its reminiscences of the first, its lightness of touch and brilliance, andconcluding operatic panache.
The Piano Concerto in DMinor was written for performance at the Birmingham Festival of 1837, whereMendelssohn won further success as pianist, organist, conductor and composer, with theoratorio St. Paul. The writing of the concerto coincided with his honeymoon and it waswith some irritation that he found himself obliged to travel to London and to Birmingham,the city for which he was to write the Lobgesang and the oratorio Elijah.
The concerto opens again with the briefest of orchestralintroductions, allowing the soloist to make an immediate impression with a dramaticopening passage. The second subject is introduced by the piano, making its way to theexpected key of F major. It is the soloist who leads to the B flat major slow movement,where the first theme is entrusted to the orchestra, to be capped by the soloist withmaterial of a more rhapsodic kind. The last movement, as economically scored as the restof the work, allows the soloist a display of delicate brilliance in music that isthoroughly characteristic of the composer.
Some have dated Mendelssohn's B minor Capriccio Brillant to 1825 or 1826, the yearof his A Midsummer Night's Dream Overture.
What is certain is that it was performed during his second stay in London, in 1832. It isunusual as a single movement piece for solo piano and orchestra, no mere sketch for afuture concerto. A slow introduction leads to an Allegro con fuoco, including in itscourse a march worthy of the Italian pilgrims of the ItalianSymphony. The Rondo Brillant is dated 29th January 1834, after abusy year that had taken him twice to London and brought a removal from Berlin toD??sseldorf, as director of the Lower Rhine Festival. The Rondo lives up to its name inform and the descriptive adjective of its title in its brilliance, making no pretence ofprofundity in a sparkling display.
The young British pianist BenjaminFrith has had a distinguished career. A pupil of Fanny Waterman, he won, at the age offourteen, the British National Concerto Competition, followed by the award of the MozartMemorial Prize and joint top prize in 1986 in the Italian Busoni International PianoCompetition and in 1989 a Gold Medal and First prize in the Arthur Rubinstein Piano MasterCompetition. Benjamin Frith enjoys a busy international career, with engagements in theUnited States and throughout Europe as a soloist and recitalist, with festival appearancesat Sheffield, Aldeburgh, Harrogate, Kuhmo, Bolzano, Savannah, Pasadena and Hong Kong andan Edinburgh Festival debut in 1992. His recordings include a highly praised performanceof Beethoven's Diabelli Variations on theASV label and for Naxos a release of piano music by Schumann, followed by the twoMendelssohn Piano Concertos and the Third Piano Concertoof Rachmaninov.
Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra(Koice)
The East Slovakian town of Koiceboasts a long and distinguished musical tradition, as part of a province that onceprovided Vienna with musicians. The State Philharmonic Orchestra is of relatively recentorigin and was established in 1968 under the conductor Bystrik Rezucha. Subsequentprincipal conductors have included Stanislav Macura and Ladislav Slovak, the lattersucceeded in 1985 by his pupil Richard Zimmer. The orchestra has toured widely in Easternand Western Europe and plays an important part in the Koice Musical Spring and theKoice International Organ Festival.
For Marco Polo the orchestra has madethe first compact disc recordings of rare works by Granville Bantock and Joachim Raff.
Writing on the last of these, one critic praised the orchestra for its competencecomparable to that of the major orchestras of Vienna and Prague. The orchestra hascontributed many successful volumes to the complete compact disc Johann Strauss II and forNaxos has recorded a varied repertoire.
Robert Stankovsky was born inBratislava, the capital of Slovakia, in 1964, and after a childhood spent in the study ofthe piano, recorder, oboe and clarinet, turned his attention, at the age of fourteen, toconducting, graduating in this and in piano at the Bratislava Conservatory with the titleof best graduate of the year. Stankovsky is regarded as one of the best conductors of theyounger generation in Czecho-Slovakia. For Marco Polo Stankovsky has recor