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.
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: