Mendelssohn: Piano Concerto No. 2 (CD review)

Also, Symphony No. 1 and The Fair Melusine overture. Kristian Bezuidenhout, piano; Pablo Heras-Casado, Freiburger Barockorchester. Harmonia Mundi HMM 902369.

Most of us are familiar with Mendelssohn's Second Piano Concerto, but I wonder how many of us can say the same of his First Symphony, the companion piece on this disc? While the composer's Third and Fourth Symphonies rightly get the lion's share of performances and recordings and his Fifth sits in the shadows, the poor First hardly gets mentioned at all. Indeed, when I thought about it, I couldn't recall ever having owned a recording of it and, worse, having only heard it maybe once in my lifetime.

Is it fair the First Symphony gets so little respect? Not really. Even though it is a relatively immature work, Mendelssohn having written it when he was only fifteen, that doesn't make it any less interesting than his overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream, written just two years later. In fact, there are already hints of the overture in the earlier symphony. But all that is beside the point, which is that South African-born pianist Kristian Bezuidenhout and conductor Pablo Heras-Casado have chosen to pair the concerto and symphony together on this Harmonia Mundi disc. Moreover, they've chosen to present the music as closely as possible to what the composer might have heard some two hundred years ago: using a fortepiano and a period-instruments band.

First up is the early piece, the Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 11, which Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) completed in 1824 and premiered publicly in 1827 with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (an orchestra still going strong, by the way). Mendelssohn arranged it in standard symphonic form: Allegro (fast), Andante (moderately slow), Menuetto-Allegro molto (in the tempo of a minuet and then becoming increasingly faster and more lively), and ending with an Allegro con fuoco (with energy and emotion).

As is appropriate to the nature of a relatively immature work, Maestro Heras-Casado takes it at a fairly brisk, almost rambunctious pace. This is especially true of the allegro parts, which are never breakneck but certainly brisk. Tempos appear well chosen and spring to life with graceful gusto, not overwrought exertion. Throughout the score, there are hints, as I say, of A Midsummer Night's Dream and even the Scottish Symphony, something the conductor does nothing to hide or highlight. If you haven't heard it, which I hadn't in years, it's a delightful, if lightweight, piece of old-fashioned music making.

Kristian Bezuidenhout
Moreover, for those listeners worried that this is another period-instruments recording where the string players appear to be fiddling on solid steel wires and performing at such a reckless speed they're in danger of setting their instruments on fire, not to fret. The orchestra sounds smooth and sonorous, and the performance is invigorating but never breathless.

Next up is the better-known of the two works, the Piano Concerto No. 2 in D minor, Op. 40, composed in 1837, a follow-up to several other piano concertos Mendelssohn had written. Although it would never compare in popularity to his Third or Fourth Symphonies or his Midsummer music, the Concerto has its fair share of admirers, too. A long-held criticism of the concerto is that Mendelssohn didn't seem interested in making it a virtuoso affair for the pianist, so it finds itself generally eclipsed these days by the more flamboyant Romantic showpieces of Beethoven, Schumann, Liszt, Grieg, Tchaikovsky, and the rest. Still, it's a fun piece of music, and it's especially intriguing to hear Kristian Bezuidenhout play it on a vintage 1837 fortepiano (the same age as the composition) with Heras-Casado leading the Freiburger Barockorchester, also playing on historical instruments.

Despite the criticisms through the years about Mendelssohn's Second Piano Concerto not being much of a tour de force for pianists, Bezuidenhout certainly makes it seem more formidable than it probably is. His playing is elegant yet forceful, vigorous yet careful, energetic yet polished. And, needless to say, it's virtuosic, whether the composer intended it so or not. It's still a Romantic work, and Bezuidenhout plays it with a felicitously passionate vigor and reflective longing as the moods demand.

The disc ends, oddly, with the tone poem Die Schone Melusine ("The Fair Melusine"). I say oddly because as a short concert overture, one might have expected it to open the program. Nevertheless, it's a fine interpretation of the piece by Maestro Heras-Casado and company and makes a grand statement to end the show.

Artistic Director and editor Martin Sauer and engineer Tobias Lehmann, both of Teldex Studio Berlin, recorded the music at Ensemblehaus Freiburg, Germany in September 2018. The sound spreads widely across the speakers, with a lovely bloom. While it is not so closely miked that detail is all important, it is nicely realistic in a more natural sense. There is a pleasantly rich glow to the acoustic, the instruments coming together in a realistic whole. Depth perception is good; dynamics are lifelike; and the frequency responses is more than adequate.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

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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 Jon 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 of The $ensible Sound magazine 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 simpleminded, 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 Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. 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 cell phone. 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.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa