Piano Concerto in E minor
Chopin: Grand Concerto
DUTTON CD LX 7312
reviewed by Neville Cohn
Both composers featured on this CD died before they’d reached the ago of 40. One can only speculate what musical riches were denied the world by so tragically early a demise. Often, death intervened before works were completed. Entire movements were needed to complete Mozart’s Requiem. And years after Elgar’s death, his Symphony No 3 was completed by a third party. Mendelssohn, too, left unfinished works.
Now Martin Yates has taken up the challenge of building to completion a concerto of which Mendelssohn had left only the briefest of sketches. It would have been a huge challenge – and a labour of love – to embark on so daunting a musical mission from so miniscule a base. Of course, there’s the possibility that Mendelssohn might have felt the work wasn’t worth taking to completion. No one can be certain. Was this task shouldered by Yates worth the time and effort invested? On the evidence of this recording, I’d say a definite ‘yes’.
Unlike the piano concertos in G minor and D minor, the work in E minor lacks a virtuosic introductory flourish. But there are nonetheless pages of demanding writing for the solo instrument – and the work, as built up by Yates and interpreted to such exquisite effect by Sangiorgio, inhabits a charm-laden sound and mood world that frequently calls to mind some of Mendelssohn’s engaging Songs without Words. And the gentle, elegiac lift to the phrase – and its quiet simplicity – in the slow movement could hardly be bettered – as also the jovial, buoyant, polka-like measures of the finale, all of which falls most agreeably on the ear. As well, in this world premiere recording, string playing is lively and precise.
Unlike the Mendelssohn work, Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 1 is, of course, one of the most loved and frequently heard works in the repertoire. This version, though, is somewhat off the beaten track in that the orchestration has been revised by Mily Balakirev (he of the Russian Five) to take clever advantage of what would at the time have been relatively recent improvements in the construction of brass and woodwind instruments. It’s put together very cleverly. Balakirev also added a part for cor anglais – and he titled the work Grand Concerto. This is the first ever digital recording of the Balakirev version.
Sangiorgio plays it beautifully in turn tender and sighing with, often, a light-textured aerial quality to the phrase that makes this reading memorable. Throughout, Yates and the Royal Northern Sinfonia come up trumps.
There’s also an orchestral rarity: Mendelssohn’s Heimkher aus der Fremde which makes a charming overture to the two concertos.