INKPOT#70 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: MENDELSSOHN Piano Concertos Nos 1 & 2. Capriccio brillant. Rondo brillant. Frith (Naxos)
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)Piano Concerto No.1 in G minor, op.25
Piano Concerto No.2 in D minor, op.40
Capriccio brillant in B minor, op.22
Rondo brillant in E-flat major, op.29
BENJAMIN FRITH piano
Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra (Kowice)
conducted by Robert Stankovsky
by Chia Han-Leon
It is strange that these concertos remain relatively unknown – they are brilliantly crafted pieces worthy of any piano enthusiast’s attention. There is the classical clarity of Mozart, the proto-Romantic drive of Weber and the lyric feeling of Beethoven. In it, Mendelssohnian qualities are well demonstrated – his laughter-scintillating-on-the-surface wit and his not-often recognised capacity for emotion, both tender and melancholy.
Add to this one still-underrated Mendelssohnian pianist and an East European orchestra which consistently surprises more than it disappoints – this becomes one of those CDs which you can safely buy without hesitating. I suppose you could spend double the price on a few other well-known full-priced recordings such as that on Hyperion, but if you’re looking for a budget-priced alternative featuring high-calibre playing – here it is.
In fact, Mendelssohn wrote a great number of concertos next to the familiar Violin Concerto in E minor. These include two double-piano concertos, one for violin and piano with strings, and a second violin concerto in D minor.
Benjamin Frith won joint First Prize at the 1986 Busoni International Piano Competition, and a Gold Medal and First Prize at the Sixth Arthur Rubenstein International Piano Competition in 1989 (a second First Prize was also awarded to Ian Fountain). To me, a non-pianist, these mean little. What is meaningful to me is the way he brings life and colour to this music.
With the orchestra following faithfully – always in total support, without a hint of conflict, Frith opens the stormy introductions of both concertos with great oomph. The exposition of themes, the helter-skelter runs of the score, the tender slow movements – all are performed with a unity which never lets up. Indeed, it is precisely this attention-grabbing quality which binds one to the disc as it plays. There is this Mendelssohnian spirit which all the performers imbue into their performances which so enchants and moves me. From the urgent rushes of momentum to the lyrical interludes of light reflection, Frith has a way of pronouncing, moulding and nuancing his parts which feels true to the composer’s personality. He makes this music so familiar.
There is sparkle and wit, there is bubbling laughter, there is soothing tenderness and there is dark-hued, buffeting drive. Listen to the cooperation between soloist and orchestra (and recording engineers) in the middle of the G minor’s Presto as the piano slips underneath the orchestra. The shifting balance allows the orchestral parts to take centrestage while the pianist continues to comment as a secondary voice. Even when playing the lightest pianissimi, the recording manages to capture the dampening of the notes as they fade. In all, Frith makes his parts sound so easy, as if painting a picture of the ever-youthful Mendelssohn himself spinning and weaving the notes on the piano himself.
The G minor concerto was completed in October 1832, when the composer was 23. No.2 in D minor was written 5 years later for a performance at Birmingham. Joining the two concertos on this 70-minute disc are the Capriccio brillant in B minor, op.22 of 1832 and the Rondo brillant in E-flat major, op.29, completed in 1834. The latter are both under 12-minutes, essentially one-movement piano concertos again testing the soloist, but not at the expense of musical appeal. Even the orchestra keeps up the sense of interest, playing out their roles with conviction – in fact, there is just this “live” feeling to the entire disc’s contents.
When Mendelssohn visited England in 1829, he gave one of the first performances of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto (whose composer died only two years before). I have this feeling that the experience of playing the Emperor’s heavenly Adagio must have left Felix a deep impression; for, the slow movements of his two piano concertos here are tender, loving creations.
Pointless for me to describe this essentially “Romantic” music, except to reiterate on how perfectly Frith’s style fits here. His touch, capable of energy and yet also of genuine lightness, is exactly what I feel is necessary to perform Mendelssohn. Felix was no hammer-banging rebel composer, but a humanitarian who wanted to share music and in that to convey humaneness. His slow movements, even those he composed in his youth, demonstrate a mind and heart mature with emotions, appreciative of beauty.
Here, Frith brings out completely the intimate contentment of say, No.1’s Andante. The Adagio of the Second Piano Concerto is worthy of Beethoven; Frith’s gentle pushing of the phrases throughout is breathtakingly beautiful. The urging towards the moderate climax at 5’29” is handled very naturally. His piano tone is like slowly, softly glowing light, which dissipates serenely as it ends.
This disc can be found or ordered from Borders (Wheelock Place), Tower (Pacific Plaza and Suntec City), Sing Discs (Raffles City) or HMV (The Heeren).
Hey, 23 was the age Chia Han-Leon joined The Flying Inkpot.