Mendelssohn: The Piano Concertos (SACD review)

Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; Rondo Brillant, Op. 29. Martin Helmchen, piano; Philippe Herreweghe, Royal Flemish Philharmonic. PentaTone PTC 5186 366.

I don't know about you, but the piano concertos are not the first pieces of music I think of when somebody mentions Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847). I wonder if it isn't perhaps because the composer himself never felt entirely secure about his piano-and-orchestra compositions. Which is odd, of course, considering that Mendelssohn was a fine pianist and that his Songs Without Words for solo piano were tremendous hits with critics and the public. Anyway, the present disc joins a relatively small group of recordings devoted to the composer's piano-and-orchestra works, and a welcome addition it is.

Things begin with the Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 25, written in 1831. Mendelssohn marked the opening movement Molto allegro con fuoco, and certainly pianist Martin Helmchen and conductor Philippe Herreweghe take him at his word with a furiously festive and invigorating pace. Following the opening swirls, we find a relaxing calm in the Andante, where Helmchen creates such a mood of tranquil bliss, it seems to me hard for any listener to resist it. We expect Mendelssohn to be magical, enchanting, and it is in this slow movement that he fulfills the promise. The final section, a Presto, continues without a break, ending the concerto with the kind of brilliant fireworks from the composer and dazzling finger work from the pianist that began the piece.

Piano Concerto No. 2 in D minor, Op. 40 (1837), shows an added maturity on Mendelssohn's part, as it is not so frolicsome, rambunctious, or playful as No. 1, even though the opening Allegro is still most passionate. This concerto is simply larger, longer, and more serious in tone than its predecessor. Like the earlier concerto, the movements run together without pause, the Adagio taking up where the mood of the preceding movement leaves off. It isn't as bewitching as the first concerto's slow section, but it is surely attractive and played most lovingly by Helmchen and Herreweghe. Again the concerto ends with a Presto, this one a tad more restrained. Apparently Mendelssohn by this time was no longer trying to wow an audience, and neither do the players.

The album ends with the Rondo Brillant for Piano and Orchestra in E flat, Op. 29 (1834). It exudes a positive confidence despite the composer's reservations about his abilities. While it may not display the invention of Mendelssohn's best work, it is a pleasant, self-assured piece of music nonetheless.

The sound, which PentaTone recorded in Antwerp, Belgium, in 2010, is big without being overpowering. Although the piano seems a touch too wide, the engineers have nicely integrated it with the orchestra, making a reasonably realistic presentation. There is a degree of softness to the orchestral accompaniment, however, and some bass overhang tends to obscure midrange detail a bit. This a multichannel SACD hybrid affair, so perhaps played back in more than two channels would help clarify the sound somewhat better.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa