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CD: Crotchet

Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
A Tribute to Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy
From Songs without Words for solo piano:
Op. 19/1 in E major (c.1829/32) [3:05]
Op. 19/4 in A major (c.1829/32) [2:10]
Op. 38/6 in A flat major Duetto (1836) [2:46]
Op. 62/1 in G major (1844) [2:00]
Op. 62/6 in A major Spring Song (1842) [2:02]
Op. 67/2 in F sharp minor (1845) [2:00]
Op. 67/4 in C major Spinning Song (1845) [1:46]
Op. 85/1 in F major (c.1840s) [2:19]
Op. 102/5 in A major Kinderstück (1845) [1:01]
Rondo Capriccioso in E Major for solo piano, Op. 14 (c. 1828, revised later) [6:12]
Variations Sérieuses in D minor for solo piano, Op. 54 (1841) [11:34]
Concerto in A minor for Piano and String Orchestra, S.3 (1822) [33:32]
Liebrecht Vanbeckevoort (piano)
Camerata Con Cor(d)e String Orchestra/Alain Roelant
rec. 29-31 July 2008, Academiezaal, Saint-Trond, Belgium. DDD
PHAEDRA CLASSICS 292019 [70:27]
Experience Classicsonline

This 2009 release from the Phaedra label marks the 200th anniversary of Mendelssohn’s birth. It is good to have another version in the catalogue of the rarely recorded Concerto in A minor for Piano and String Orchestra from the thirteen year old Mendelssohn.
A new name to me, the Belgian-born pianist Liebrecht Vanbeckevoort, is a laureate of the Queen Elisabeth International Music Competition of Belgium 2007. He studied with Professor Jan Michiels at the Royal Conservatory of Brussels and later with Professor Ton Demmers at the Brabants Conservatorium, Holland. In 2008 Vanbeckevoort attended the New England Conservatory, Boston in the class of Russell Sherman.
Mendelssohn composed his eight volumes of Songs without Words (Lieder ohne Worte) at various points in his life from 1830 to 1845. There are 36 of these short lyrical piano pieces designed to be within the compass of pianists of various abilities. The first volume of six was tentatively issued in 1832 by Novello of London but they would not underwrite the costs of printing. After a year only 48 copies had been sold, a fact that contrasts with the consequent and enduring popularity of the pieces. Two of the volumes Op. 85 and Op. 102 were published posthumously. It seems that five of the piano pieces were allocated titles authorised by Mendelssohn himself. I tried to find the exact composition dates but for some of the Songs without Words they are only approximate.

For me the finest recording is a selection of 15 of the pieces played with refinement and poetry by Murray Perahia. The disc was recorded in 1997 at New Jersey, USA and 1998 in London on Sony Classical SK 66511 (c/w Bach/Busoni Choral Preludes and Schubert/Liszt Song Transcriptions). I used Perahia’s Sony recording to make a comparison with those four matching pieces that Vanbeckevoort has chosen to record here.

The opening piece, Op. 19/1 in E major marked Andante con moto is played with an invigorating freshness and lightness of touch. Perahia plays with authority and additional assurance. He is able to mould every note into his overall vision of the piece. With considerable purity each note is clearly defined with a luminous tone. Compared to Vanbeckevoort, Perahia’s dynamics are frequently broad but not wildly so. Marked Moderato in the A major piece, Op. 19/4 Vanbeckevoort delivers a stately and serious interpretation, discovering an undercurrent of passion.
I enjoyed the buoyancy of the A flat major Duetto, Op. 38/6 which is an uplifting Andante con moto containing a central section of considerable excitement. Here Perahia selects a rather measured pace affording himself ample time for expression compared to Vanbeckevoort’s slightly brisker tempo. The G major score, Op. 62/1 an Andante espressivo is interpreted by Vanbeckevoort with an impressive dramatic breadth. I was struck by the instant memorability of the lullaby-like A major, Op. 62/6 a lively and characterful Allegretto grazioso known as the Spring Song.
In the F sharp minor piece, Op. 67/2 marked Allegro leggiero Vanbeckevoort is delicate and witty displaying a mischievous quality. In the famous Spinning Song a C major Presto, Op. 67/4 he is joyously brisk and sparkling and displays splendid control. Perahia in the Spinning Song adopts a similar speed, playing with his usual brilliance. Vanbeckevoort in the F major piece, Op. 85/1, an Andante espressivo conveys a swaying rhythm suggesting an aqueous character. With the A major Kinderstück, Op. 102/5 marked Allegro vivace he comes across as brisk and bustling.

There is some difference of opinion over the composition date of Mendelssohn’s Rondo Capriccioso in E Major, Op. 14. Mendelssohn may have completed it as early as 1824 or even in 1828, with a later revision. I note there is an autograph version dated 1830 which was possibly used as a gift for the Munich pianist Delphine von Schauroth, a baroness’s daughter. The Rondo Capriccioso is formed in two contrasting sections played continuously. In the first part an Andante in E major Vanbeckevoort finds a lyrical tenderness that he develops into a fiery fervour. At 2:04 the second section an E minor Presto is given a convincing interpretation. One can easily picture a dreamlike nocturnal magic, evocative of fairy creatures at play in a moonlit woodland glade à la A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The Variations Sérieuses in D minor, Op. 54 is considered a great masterpiece of Romantic piano music. Following an invitation from Pietro Mechetti, the Viennese publisher, Mendelssohn wrote this work as his contribution to an “Album-Beethoven”. This collection of works by several composers was conceived in the hope of raising money for a commemorative Beethoven statue in Bonn. Mendelssohn completed the score in 1841 with publication in Vienna following the  next year. Biographer Prof. Glenn Stanley, in his ‘The music for keyboard’ Chapter 9 from ‘The Cambridge Companion to Mendelssohn’ (ed. Peter Mercer-Taylor, Cambridge University Press, 2004, p. 160) has described this set of piano variations as “a Bachian Homage to Beethoven.” It seems that Mendelssohn deleted one of the original eighteen variations leaving us with a rich and affecting theme followed by the seventeen variations. In this substantial single movement score numerous and widely varying emotions are evoked and Vanbeckevoort gives an interpretation of promising assurance. The playing encompasses graceful delicacy, sparkling vitality, brooding mystery and stormy tempestuousness.
In the alternative recordings of both the Rondo Capriccioso and the Variations Sérieuses I greatly admire Perahia’s expertly controlled and assured versions on Sony Classical SNYC 37838 (c/w Mendelssohn: Sonata for Piano, Prelude and Fugue).
The final work is the little known Concerto in A minor for Piano and String Orchestra. Although the autograph score is not dated it was, according to Mendelssohn’s nephew Sebastian Hensel, composed in 1822 when Mendelssohn would have been around 13 years old. Evidently it was performed at one of the Sonntagsmusiken (Sunday musicales) held at the Mendelssohn residence in Berlin. This house would have been at Neue Promenade as the Mendelssohn family did not move to the large mansion in the Leipziger Straße until late 1825. The three movement score is the longest of Mendelssohn’s three piano concertos and was possibly modelled on Hummel’s 1816 Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 85 in the same key.
In the substantial opening Allegro Vanbeckevoort communicates elegance, combined with ample spirit and vivacity. His confident interpretation of the central movement Adagio is one of considerable sensitivity and grace. The final movement marked Allegro ma non troppo is performed with joviality and ebullience with evident vitality. At 6:46-8:23 a short reflective central passage provides a stark contrast before the work embarks on a headlong sprint to the finishing line. Vanbeckevoort is skilfully accompanied.
Liebrecht Vanbeckevoort’s first solo CD is a fine achievement. His splendid playing promises much for a future that looks exceedingly rosy. This Phaedra disc is worth buying for the rarely heard Piano Concerto in A minor alone. With regard to the solo piano scores on the disc it is impossible not to look further than the magnificent Sony Classics releases from Murray Perahia.
The well balanced sound quality from this Phaedra disc is slightly lacking in clarity when compared to the above-mentioned disc of the Songs without Words by Murray Perahia on Sony Classics. The essay in the booklet is written to a decent standard although I was left wanting more information on the actual scores.

Michael Cookson


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