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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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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.

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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.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa