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Review: Mendelssohn's Lieder ohne Worte, Books 5-8

Felix Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words made famous a mini-genre in which his works had only few predecessors and no plethora of successors. As a small salon piece, it would seem an obviously attractive format, yet the title “Impromptu” remained more popular, and other than Fauré’s early Romances sans paroles, not many others have become half as well-known. Nor is the title a senseless addition: the pieces resemble songs in that they usually unfurl a single musical idea, instead of the contrasting ones that characterise sonata form, and are dominated equally by melody, texture and atmosphere: more poems, perhaps, than novellas. 

Mendelssohn once commented that “the music I love expresses ideas that are not too vague to be captured in words, but on the contrary too precise”. It’s a fascinating point and one that suggests each of this prolific composer’s pieces might need a different, subtle yet exact shade of meaning. That is no small challenge when tackling 37 brief pieces, none of them as long as three minutes, at a piano modelled after an 1830 Pleyel (Brautigam plays a copy by Paul McNulty made in 2010).

The instrument is a moot point: Mendelssohn’s piano writing is of course designed for these lighter, softer instruments, often demanding the fleetest of fingers, with many accompaniments involving rapid repeated notes or chords; the heavier the keyboard, the more of a headache (or wristache) those can be for the performer.

Sounding in his element on the McNulty, Brautigam plunges in to the pieces with an impressive arsenal of expression, finding the balance of voices and spot-on judgment of tempi as if it were the easiest thing in the world, which it’s not. There’s fire, air, lightness and lyricism in plenty, as well as a gentle and engaging application of virtuoso flair when appropriate, and the sound on the FLAC stereo download is little short of magnificent.

There’s just that question of atmospheric shading – and here the advantages of the fortepiano may also be its shortcomings. Interpreters of these pieces on the modern piano have at their disposal the tools to increase the contrast between pieces, with the piano’s increased capabilities in terms of dynamic and tone colour. I don’t doubt that Brautigam is doing his very best with what he’s got, and for listeners wanting a sound approximating the one Mendelssohn would have heard, one would not hesitate to recommend this recording wholeheartedly.

Jessica Duchen

image courtesy of Donnera Trois

Jessica Duchen writes about music for The Independent and is the author of a number of novels, biographies and plays. Current projects include an opera libretto for composerRoxanna Panufnik(for Garsington Opera 2017) and a new novel, Ghost Variations, which will be published later this year (Unbound). Her popular blogJDCMBhas run since 2004.


Performance: four stars

Sound: five stars

Mendelssohn:Lieder ohne Worte, Books 5-8

Ronald Brautigam(fortepiano)