Mendelssohn’s Early Piano Music

570034bk Hasse

MENDELSSOHN: Sonata in C min. Sonata in A min. Sonatina in E. Andante in D. Prestissimo in F min. Vivace in C min. Fugues in D min., B min., G min, C# min., Eb / Sergio Monteiro, pno / Naxos 8.573946

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: although Felix Mendelssohn was known during his lifetime as “the new Mozart,” I find his music, on the whole, to be more interesting and more inspired that Mozart—or, you might put it, less condescending to popular tastes. In this new album, pianist Sergio Monteiro tackles sonatas, fugues and other short pieces that he wrote between the ages of 11 and 17.

One might be surprised, considering his affinity to Mozart, to hear the opening of the Sonata in C minor, which sounds for all the world like something by Johann Sebastian Bach—only to then move into a jaunty 3/4 tune, still in the minor, that sounds a little like Mozart but which is better developed. Seriously, folks, for the work of an 11-year-old, this is astonishingly good music. In the development section, Mendelssohn indulges in some virtuosic runs, but they don’t sound superfluous; on the contrary, they act as a bridge between the exposition and return of the opening theme, and to a certain degree some of the development sounds like early Beethoven. Now granted, these models were already in place for him; this was, after all, 1820; but it doesn’t really take anything away from his powers of invention. And although Monteiro appears to be playing a somewhat early piano (at least, it has less resonance than any modern piano I’ve heard, though the instrument is not mentioned in the liner notes), he plays it with Beethoven-like gusto, which helps us appreciate Mendelssohn’s achievement better. The second-movement “Adagio” is simply a lyrical piece, foreshadowing the composer’s Songs Without Words but still in the form and context of a sonata movement. The last-movement “Presto,” though a flashy piece, also has a strong structure reflecting the 11-year-old composer’s already vast knowledge of musical construction.

Moreover, this strong combination of inspiration and fine structure continues into the next sonata in A minor and the brief (five-minute) Sonatina in E. No two ways about it, Mendelssohn was a true musical prodigy. One of the few weak pieces on this disc, however, is the Andante in D, a repetitive and somewhat uninteresting work. The Prestissimo in F minor is also not really a great piece, but the Vivace in C minor clearly is.

With the fugues, we again hear Mendelssohn’s J.S. Bach side. Considering how well he understood this aesthetic, it’s really not surprising that he revived Bach’s works in his time as a conductor. These are fine pieces, a bit simple in construction compared to the master but nothing that a composer twice his age would be ashamed of. To me, the most impressive of them is the rather long (almost 8 minutes) fugue in C# minor, which could easily be confused for a similar piece by young Bach himself.

All in all, this CD is an ear-opener, showing just how fine a composer Mendelssohn was at such an early age, and Monteiro’s performances are lively and energetic, just what you want to hear.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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