Beethoven or Mendelssohn? The massive opening of this piano concerto, certain features I would typically associate with the Vienna master, could well have led me into error. But no. Felix Mendelssohn wrote this piece, the Piano Concerto in G Major, op. 25. It is one of his earlier works and yes, he had studied Beethoven well and some of his very early works actually do emulate Beethoven’s late style. And while the master’s influence must be acknowledged on the piece, the student’s later signature as writer of “Lieder” shines already through the first movement.
I heard the work a month ago performed by the Orchestre Philharmonique de Luxembourg and the Israeli pianist Saleem Ashkar. What a pleasure! What a delight! I never had heard Ashkar’s name before, let alone himself at the piano. His finger’s seemed to fly over these keys without touching them. Virtuosity!
Mendelssohn wrote this piano concerto – his first by the way – between 1830 and 1831, a period that he spent travelling and absorbing new ideas. His grand tour took him to Austria and Italy, where he would stay for almost a year, and than to Paris after a stint to Switzerland and Germany and finally a second time to the United Kingdom.
Exploring Vienna’s musical past
While Mendelssohn stayed in Vienna – i.e. autumn 1830 – he interviewed people who had known Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven during their lifetime. He discussed Baroque music with the historian Raphael Georg Kiesewetter and more importantly he met the collectioner Aloys Fuchs who gave him an sketch book that had belonged to Beethoven with notes on the “Diabelli Variations“, the “Missa Solemnis” and the Piano Sonata (op. 109). A truly precious gift that Mendelssohn would later offer to his friend Ignaz Moscheles.
The piano concerto – his first – is finished by summer 1831; the composer dedicated it to Delphine von Schauroth, a young woman that Mendelssohn had fallen in love with a year earlier in Munich, where he had stopped en route to Vienna. She was a precocious piano talent and composer and obviously of great interest for a young composer just four years older. Schumann would be equaylly seduced by her works some years later. Upon his return from Italy, Mendelssohn stopped in Munich for the first performance of the piano concerto on October 17, 1831 – and to see Mrs. von Schauroth!
The concerto is written in three connected movements and is structured in a very classical way. The music itself however expresses “a certain thematic freedom and formal spontaneity”, as Mendelssohn’s biographer R. Larry Todd observes. The second movement explores a key different for G minor , E sharp, the dominant key of Mrs. von Schauroth’s “Lied ohne Worte”, that she had composed for Mendelssohn. It features a number of pianistic effects that would endear it to the audience of the 19th century and lead the French composer Hector Berlioz to caricature by having it performed of thirty-one competing pianists leading to a pianistic firework.
I appreciate Berlioz and I understand he did not indulge in playful compositional tricks, but nevertheless I love Mendelssohn’s first piano concerto almost as much as I love his Piano Concerto No. 2 in D Minor (Op. 40). It has been recorded by the Rundfunk-Sinfonie Orchester Saarbrücken and the pianist Ragna Schirmer, along with Mendelssohn’s second piano concerto.
© Charles Thibo