Mendelssohn: Lieder ohne Worte, Vol 1 - Brautigam
BIS BIS-1982 SACD
Classical - Instrumental
MENDELSSOHN BARTHOLDY, Felix (1809–47)
Sechs Lieder ohne Worte: Op. 19b (1832–33), Op. 30 (1835), Op. 38 (1837), Op. 53 (1841)
Individual ‘Lieder ohne Worte’:
E flat major, Espressivo & Allegro, MWV U 68 (1828)
A major, Andante, MWV U 76 (1830)
A minor, Andante, early version of Op. 19b No. 2 (1830)
F sharp minor, Allegro molto, MWV U 124 (1836)
A major, Allegretto non troppo, MWV U 136 (1837)
Ronald Brautigam (fortepiano)
If claims could be made for a certain composer to have invented a genre single-handedly, Felix Mendelssohn would be a strong candidate with his ‘Songs without Words’. The term itself can be traced back to 1828, and a letter in which Fanny Mendelssohn mention having received a ‘song without words’ as a birthday present from her brother.
Although Mendelssohn continued an existing tradition of writing short lyrical pieces for the piano, the concept of ‘wordless songs’ was new, and indeed the great majority of the Lieder ohne Worte display some sort of song-like structure (melody in the upper voice, an accompaniment that is predominantly chordal or arpeggiated, ABA-form).
Immediately popular with a wide audience, and soon a staple ingredient in domestic music-making all over Europe, the Lieder ohne Worte were also highly regarded by fellow composers, who imitated the style of Mendelssohn’s pieces, and sometimes adopted his title for them as well. One such admirer was Robert Schumann, who was captivated by the ‘Duett’ (Op. 38, No. 6), hearing in it: ‘lovers… conversing quietly, intimately and confidently’. (The piece was in fact written for Cécile Jeanrenaud, who would later become Mendelssohn’s wife.)
Gathered on this disc are the first four books of the eight published collections of Lieder ohne Worte (two of which appeared posthumously) and an appendix consisting of five individual pieces which Mendelssohn never included in any collection but which nevertheless belong to the genre.
One of today’s leading exponents on the fortepiano, Ronald Brautigam has released complete sets of the piano music by Mozart and Haydn, and is currently recording a highly regarded series of the solo piano works by Beethoven. For the present disc he has chosen to play on a replica by the renowned maker Paul McNulty of a Pleyel instrument built in 1830, and thus contemporary with the music performed on it.
- Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy: 6 Lieder ohne Worte (Songs without Words, Book 1), MWV U 73/78/80/86/89/90 Op. 19b
- Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy: 6 Lieder ohne Worte (Songs without Words, Book 2), MWV U 77/97/98/103/104/110 Op. 30
- Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy: 6 Lieder ohne Worte (Songs without Words, Book 3), MWV U 107/115/119/120/121/137 Op. 38
- Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy: 6 Lieder ohne Worte (Songs without Words, Book 4), MWV U 109/114/143/144/153/154 Op. 53
- Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy: Leid ohne Worte (Song without words) in A major, MWV U 136 (1837)
- Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy: Leid ohne Worte (Song without words) in A major, MWV U 76 (1830)
- Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy: Leid ohne Worte (Song without words) in A minor (1830)
- Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy: Leid ohne Worte (Song without words) in E-flat major, MWV U 68 (1828)
- Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy: Leid ohne Worte (Song without words) in F sharp minor, MWV U 124 (1836)
Review by John Miller - January 9, 2013
It would be difficult to find a person who has had piano lessons at some time in their life and has never come across Mendelssohn's 'Songs Without Words'. There are at least 56 of them, published in 8 books or volumes, with a remainder of posthumous, unpublished or untitled ones. These short piano pieces were composed by Mendelssohn over a long period of his life. He may have been the first to use the generic title; other early Romantic composers such as Schumann soon followed suite. The new form may ultimately have been the origin of the more grandiose of 'Tone Poems for orchestra', an invention of Liszt's. Once published, Mendelssohn's 'Songs Without Words' rapidly sold; demand for domestic and piano teaching purposes was great, particularly in the UK where the Mendelssohns' relationship with Queen Victoria brought the composer into close public view. Publishers were falling over themselves to put out new editions.
There are many competing complete sets on RBCD; a recent attractive version by Daniel Barenboim being a good example. However, this BIS issue brings a new dimension to recordings of the 'Songs', not just by capturing them in SA-CD but having Ronald Brautigam play them on a McNulty copy of a Pleyel grand piano of 1830. This is a near ideal period instrument for these varied pieces by Mendelssohn, having a light, smooth singing tone for the simpler lyrical pieces and plenty of the sheer power required for some of his more virtuosic or turbulent and passionate ones. It has a wonderfully rich, articulate bass range and the BIS engineers give it a sound of special brilliance and transparency with striking immediacy. The piano's builder, Paul McNulty himself, was present at the sessions to maintain the instrument at its peak performance. Especially in multichannel mode, the piano-friendly acoustic of the Osteråker Church in Sweden gives plenty of space for the loudest and most passionate of the 'Songs', as well as bloom for the quieter passages.
Brautigam clearly has both insight and affection for these poetic gems. There is no sentimental lingering but a formidably lucid advocacy, ranging from tender restraint to barnstorming with virtuosic finger-work worthy of a full-blown concerto. I was often struck by a number of the 'Songs Without Words' to the piano parts of Schubert's songs, e.g. 'The Earl King'; a reminder that both Mendelssohn and Schumann almost adored the Biedermeyer Schubert's output from the 1820s.
Going through the 'Songs' on this disc, and marvelling at Brautigam's fluent advocacy (which is so much better than my own beginner's attempts) has been revelatory. Even the simplest tunes or rocking Venetian Gondola-man's Songs gain in stature when played by mature pianists, which may explain why these little pieces have lasted so long in the public's affections. I look forward to the next quota, which will probably include unpublished or rarely performed morsels to greet as newcomers.
A disc of high calibre of performance and recording, as sweet, colourful and irresistible as the pomegranate pictured on the disc's front cover!
Copyright © 2013 John Miller and HRAudio.net