MENDELSSOHN: Songs without Words, Vol. 2 (Gyorgy Jolesz/ Peter Nagy) (Naxos: 8.550453)
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FelixMendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809 -1847)
Songs without Words
To contemporaries of Mendelssohn the notion of songs without wordsseemed paradoxical. If there were no words, in fact, there could be no song.
Yet what Mendelssohn achieved was exactly what his title suggested, music inits purest and simplest form, expressing its own musical meaning, imbued withfeeling, but without verbal connotation. At the same time short piano pieces ofthis kind would always find a ready amateur market and would be welcomed bypublishers, although this may have been irrelevant to the composer's purpose.
Felix Mendelssohn, grandson of Moses Mendelssohn, the great Jewishthinker of the Enlightenment, was born in Hamburg in 1809, the son of aprosperous banker. His family was influential in cultural circles, and he andhis sister were educated in an environment that encouraged both musical andgeneral cultural interests. At the same time the extensive acquaintance of theMendelssohns among artists and men of letters brought an unusual breadth ofmind, a stimulus to natural curiosity.
Much of Mendelssohn's childhood was passed in Berlin, where his parentsmoved when he was three, to escape Napoleonic invasion. There he took lessonsfrom Goethe's much admired Zelter, who introduced him to the old poet inWeimar. The choice of a career in music was eventually decided on the advice ofCherubini, consulted by Abraham Mendelssohn in Paris, where he was director ofthe Conservatoire. There followed a period of further education, a Grand Tourof Europe that took him south to ltaly and north to Scotland. His professionalcareer began in earnest with his appointment as general director of music inD??sseldorf in 1833.
Mendelssohn's subsequent career was intense and brief. He settled inLeipzig as conductor of the Gewandhaus concerts, and was instrumental inestablishing the Conservatory there. Briefly lured to Berlin by the King ofPrussia and by the importunity of his family, he spent an unsatisfactory yearor so as director of the music section of the Academy of Arts, providing musicfor a revival of classical drama under royal encouragement. This appointment hewas glad to relinquish in 1844, later returning to his old position in Leipzig,where he died in 1847.
As a composer Mendelssohn possessed a perfect technical command of theresources available to him and was always able to write music that isfelicitous, apt and often remarkably economical in the way it achieves itseffects. Mendelssohn had, like the rest of his family, accepted Christianbaptism, a ceremony Heine once described as a ticket of admission into Europeanculture. Nevertheless he encountered anti-Semitic prejudice, as others were to,and false ideas put about in his own life-time have left some trace in modernrepetitions of accusations of superficiality for which there is no realjustification.
The series of Songs without Words
that Mendelssohn wrote and published from 1830 onwards serve as a very personalmusical diary in which the composer expressed very precisely musical ideas thathad, he alleged, no verbal equivalent. It was left to later publishers tosuggest titles for the pieces, a procedure that Mendelssohn himself deplored.
The Op. 19 collection of Songs without Words was the first to bepublished, originally under the title Melodiesfor the Pianoforte. Five of these are included in the presentcollection, starting with the first, a gently evocative little piece, followedby the third, a Hunting-Song, and the second, which some publishers haveentitled Regrets. Op. 19 No.4 issometimes known as Confidence andNo.6, more probably, as a Venetian Gondolier's Song.
The second set of half a dozen Songswithout Words appeared in Bonn in 1835. Here included are thefourth, fifth and sixth, the exciting first of these known to publishers as The Wanderer, the flowing second of thegroup as The Brook and the last asecond Venetian Gondolier's Song.
From the third set come Nos. 1, 2, 5 and 6. These, published in 1837 as Op. 38, open with The Evening Star and Lost Happiness andend with Passion and a romantic Duet. Whatever the composer's view of thetitles, they do at least suggest a possible interpretation of the mood of eachpiece.
Songs without Words ofOp. 53 were published in 1841.
Two of these, Nos. 5 and 6 are included, the first a Folk Song and the second bearing the less probablepublisher's title The Flight. Thecollection was followed in 1844 by a fifth set, Op. 62. Nos. 3, 4, 5 and 6 start with a Funeral March, played in an orchestratedversion by Moscheles at Mendelssohn's own funeral. No.4 is a Morning Song, No.5 a Venetian Gondolier's Song and No.6 one ofthe best known of all, Spring Song.
The most popular piece in the sixth set, Op. 67, published in 1845, is the fourth, the Spinning Song or Bees' Wedding. The seventh series,published posthumously in 1850 as Op. 85,is here represented by Nos. 3, 5 and 6, a wild Delirium,The Return and the 1841 Song of the Traveller.
The final volume of Songs withoutWords was published as Op. 102
in 1868. The first has the publisher's title Homeless
and the second Retrospection. Thefourth has the superscription The SighingWind. The present recorded collection also includes another Song without Words, a Horseman's Song,written in 1844, but not included in the original published collections.
PeterNagy was born in Eastern Hungary in 1960 and is among the leading pianists ofthe younger generation in his native country. He entered the Ferenc LisztAcademy in Budapest at the age of 15, after winning various prizes at home andabroad, making his first professional international appearances in Finland andin Yugoslavia in 1977, followed by concerts at the Salzburg Interforum in 1978in a duo with his compatriot Balazs Szokolay. In the same year he toured theGerman Democratic Republic and the Soviet Union and in 1979 made his debut inFrance at the Menton Festival. There followed concerts in West Germany,Switzerland, and the United States of America, where he took further lessonsfrom Gyorgy Sebok at Indiana University. Nagy has played in Japan with variousorchestras, was in 1987 Artist-in-Residence at the Canberra School of Music inAustralia, and has taken part in the festivals of Aix-en-Provence, Athens,Llandaff, Cardiff, Paris, Bonn, Cologne, Geneva, Moscow and Leningrad. He is atpresent soloist with the Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra and a memberof the teaching staff of the Liszt Academy in Budapest.