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8.553541 - MENDELSSOHN: 7 Characteristic Pieces, Op. 7 / Fantasia, Op. 28

Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809-1847): Piano Music Vol.5
Fantasia (Sonate écossaise) in F sharp minor, Op. 28
Seven Characteristic Pieces, Op. 7
Prelude and Fugue in E minor
Sonata Movement in B flat minor
Capriccio in F sharp minor, Op. 5

Born in Hamburg in 1809, eldest son of the banker Abraham Mendelssohn and grandson of the great Jewish thinker Moses Mendelssohn, Felix Mendelssohn took the additional name Bartholdy on his baptism as a Christian. He was brought up in Berlin, where his family settled in 1812, and here he enjoyed the wide cultural opportunities that his family offered, through their own interests and connections. Mendelssohn's early gifts, manifested in a number of directions, included marked musical precocity, both as a player and as a performer, at a remarkably early age.

Mendelssohn's early manhood brought the opportunity to travel, as far south as Naples and as far north as the Hebrides, with Italy and Scotland both providing the inspiration for later symphonies. His career involved him in the Lower Rhine Festival in Düsseldorf and a period as city director of music, followed, in 1835, by appointment as conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig. Here he was able to continue the work he had started in Berlin six years earlier, when he had conducted in Berlin a revival of Bach's St Matthew Passion. Leipzig was to provide a degree of satisfaction that he could not find in Berlin, where he returned at the invitation of King Friedrich Wilhelm IV in 1841. In Leipzig once more, in 1843, he established a new Conservatory, spending his final years there, until his death at the age of thirty-eight on 4th November 1847, six months after the death of his gifted and beloved sister Fanny.

Mendelssohn seems to have written a first version of his Fantasia in F sharp minor, Opus 28, the so-called Sonate écossaise, in 1828, before his first visit to Scotland the following year. In 1830, after his return, he played the Fantasia to Goethe in Weimar, but revised the piece in 1833 when it was published with a dedication to the pianist and composer Ignaz Moscheles, who had given him and his sister some lessons in Berlin in 1824 and proved a useful friend during Mendelssohn's visit to London in 1829. In a key that the composer found stimulating, the Fantasia opens with a series of arpeggios, followed by the Andante principal theme. A more extended passage of cascading arpeggios is followed by the return of the Andante theme, leading to a shorter concluding passage of decorative intensity, fading to a wistful close. The second movement, marked Allegro con moto, is in the style of a gentle A major Scherzo, with a D major Trio at its heart. The extended final Presto is in established sonata form. The repeated exposition, the first section, replete with dramatic excitement, offers the expected two thematic elements and these are duly developed, to return in varied form in the final recapitulation.

Mendelssohn's Seven Characteristic Pieces, Opus 7, seem to have been written as early as 1825. They are dedicated to his piano teacher, Ludwig Berger, and reflect the study of counterpoint he had undertaken under the guidance of Zelter and his own absorption of the keyboard idiom of Johann Sebastian Bach. The first piece is a tender prelude, followed by a shift from the key of E minor to B minor and a change of mood from the contemplative to the excited. The third piece is a D major Fugue, the voices entering in imitation in descending order and proceeding to all the contrapuntal devices the heart could desire. The shadow of Bach is joined by that of Domenico Scarlatti in the extended fourth piece of the set, in A major, followed by a second Fugue in the same key, with the four voices entering in ascending order and going on to a masterly display of counterpoint. The sixth piece, in E minor and marked Sehnsüchtig (Yearning), is tenderly evocative and is capped by a final light-hearted piece in E major, breathing the fairy atmosphere of a true Mendelssohn Scherzo.

The Prelude and Fugue in E minor was published in the album Notre Temps in Mainz in 1841. The Prelude, written in that year, makes much of its opening motif and its continuation. The Fugue, written in 1827, has all the impetus inherent in a form to which Mendelssohn had devoted some study and of which he again demonstrates complete control, evidence of the way in which he had, even as a boy, absorbed the lessons of earlier musical traditions.

The Sonata Movement in B flat minor starts with a slow introduction, leading to a theme redolent of the world of Schubert and offering more rapid display. The central development section of the movement finds a place for brief contrapuntal activity, before the final section of recapitulation in music of no great distinction.

The Capriccio in F sharp minor, Opus 5, written in 1825, is marked Prestissimo and is a work of great contrapuntal excitement. Rossini, when he met Mendelssohn again in Frankfurt in 1836, suggested the influence of Scarlatti, a judgement that the composer found unjustified but that others have echoed, although there is rather something of the strength of Beethoven in the writing. Mendelssohn himself, as well he might, thought highly enough of his achievement. There is again a demonstrable mastery of counterpoint, as the work unfolds, with music of irrepressible energy and vigour, remarkable testimony to the composer's precocity both as a composer and as a pianist.

Benjamin Frith
The British pianist Benjamin Frith has had a distinguished career. A pupil of Fanny Waterman, he won the British National Concerto Competition at the age of fourteen, followed by the award of the Mozart Memorial Prize and joint top prize in 1986 in the Italian Busoni International Piano Competition and in 1989 a Gold Medal and First Prize in the Arthur Rubinstein Piano Master Competition. Benjamin Frith enjoys a busy international career, with engagements in the United States and throughout Europe as a soloist and recitalist, and festival appearances at Sheffield, Aldeburgh, Harrogate, Kuhmo, Bolzano, Savannah, Pasadena and Hong Kong and an Edinburgh Festival début in 1992. His recordings for Naxos include piano music by Schumann and Weber, the two Mendelssohn Piano Concertos, the Third Piano Concerto of Rachmaninov and Piano Concertos by John Field.

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