Mendelssohn: Piano Concertos Nos 1 & 2; Rondo brilliant, Op. 29

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COMPOSERS: Mendelssohn
LABELS: PentaTone
WORKS: Piano Concertos Nos 1 & 2; Rondo brilliant, Op. 29
PERFORMER: Martin Helmchen (piano); Royal Flemish Philharmonic/Philippe Herreweghe
CATALOGUE NO: PTC 5186 366

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Mendelssohn wrote to his mother in 1834 that Chopin and fellow pianist-composer Hiller ‘labour somewhat under the Parisian tendency of overdoing passion and despair, and too often lose sight of calm, discretion and the purely musical; I on the other hand perhaps do this too little.’ His two Piano Concertos lie chronologically on either side of this remark, but the Second really shows no more sign than the First of despair, while the passion never strays beyond the ‘purely musical’.

Both Concertos were designed to display the strong points of Mendelssohn the pianist – brilliance, fluency and control. Martin Helmchen scores high on the first two counts and well overall on the third. He shakes scales and arpeggios out of his sleeve with apparent insouciance, but I wonder about his pedaling through various octave passages marked staccato: near the start of the first movement of the D minor, surely the staccato octaves are intended as a contrasting lead-in to the orchestral tutti, twice aborted and now given its head? And in the first movement of the G minor, he does hurry one passage before being reined back.

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Mendelssohn’s use of the orchestra in his concertos is as unexciting as Chopin’s. One or two of Philippe Herreweghe’s punctuations – notably at the end of the D minor’s finale – are a touch late, but otherwise the orchestra does its job unexceptionably. The recording is clear and bright and the piano tone carries authority without ever seeming to hector or bludgeon, which is in line with what we know of the composer’s own performing style. Roger Nichols