Hailed as a “hero” (Los Angeles Times), a “smashing” performer (The Washington Post), “a pianist who breaks the mold” (International Piano) and “who stands out from the typical trends and artifices [...]
Mathieu, Shostakovich, Mendelssohn: Concertino & Concertos
They spoke about it
On this recording are assembled three giants, two of whom, particularly precocious, were compared to Mozart in their day.
As well, a reunion of great performers: pianist Alain Lefèvre, violinist David Lefèvre, trumpeter Paul Archibald joined by the London Mozart Players led by Matthias Bamert. Recorded in London in Winter 2009, this album will delight the connoisseurs with never and rarely recorded works.
While Schumann freely referred to Felix Mendelssohn as the “Mozart of the 19th century,” Goethe, who saw both young musicians perform, felt that young Felix shone even more brilliantly than his predecessor. “I am Saul and you are my David; when I am sad and dismayed, come to me and comfort me with your music,” he declared after hearing the 13-year-old Mendelssohn improvise on the theme of a Bach fugue. A century later, a similar label was placed on André Mathieu. “I cannot say whether little André Mathieu will become a greater musician than Mozart, but I can say that at his age, Mozart had not created anything comparable to what this miraculous boy performed for us with stunning brio,” wrote Émile Vuillermoz in 1939.
Mathieu: Concertino for piano No. 2, Op. 13
André Mathieu, whose father was a composer and mother a violinist, was born on February 18, 1929. His exceptional talent was apparent from a very young age, and in 1936 he received a Quebec government grant to study piano and composition in Paris. In December of that year, his recital at the Salle Chopin-Pleyel was received with enthusiasm. Rachmaninov, seeing in him a sort of heir, took the young prodigy under his wing.
The Mathieu family would vacation in Montreal, but World War II prevented them from returning to Europe. On February 3, 1940, young André made his debut at the New York City Town Hall, to great praise. The next year, in Montreal, he premiered his Concertino No. 2 with the orchestra of the Concerts symphoniques de Montréal (later to become the OSM). In 1942, the work won first prize in the young composers competition organized by the Philharmonic-Symphony Society of New York on the occasion of their centenary, beating out the likes of Leonard Bernstein. He performed the Concertino himself at Carnegie Hall under the direction of Rodolf Ganz. Albert Einstein heard the performance and was immediately charmed by the young boy: “He is the greatest proof of genius I have ever encountered.”
The Concertino for piano No. 2, Op. 13, with its three short movements, features a cadenza, newly discovered. The piano part was faithfully transcribed by composer and conductor Gilles Bellemare, who, at most, clarified certain enharmonics, dynamics and articulations. The orchestration, visibly in another hand, was edited to remove errors and weak harmonizations. “In order to respect the composer’s musical intent and to lighten the orchestral fabric, special attention was paid to maintaining a happy balance between piano and orchestra,” notes Bellemare.
Shostakovich: Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 35
If Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) cannot be portrayed as a child prodigy, he nevertheless had remarkable gifts as a performer. A pianist whose talents were noticed by the critic of the Zhizn Iskusstva (Artistic Life) at a diploma recital in 1923, and who premiered most of his own works for the instrument, he baldly asserted that “all composers should be able to play their works themselves on the piano.”
His Piano Concerto No. 1, completed in 1933, only a few weeks after the first version of the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, is a deliciously sardonic work, closer to the subtle spirit of Haydn than to the dark confusion so often associated with Shostakovich. “When listeners laugh at a concert of my symphonic music, I am not at all upset. In fact, it pleases me,” he wrote in a Soviet magazine the following year. For Shostakovich, humour was both an outlet and a sign, offering a way of bearing the unbearable. Casual, exuberant and dryly humorous, the concerto was designed to “fill a void in the Soviet instrumental repertoire,” according to the composer. He favoured a nearly classical style of writing and minimal orchestration: strings and solo trumpet (the score having been written with his friend, Alexandre Schmidt of the Leningrad Philharmonic, in mind), which only heightens the work’s eccentricity.
With quotes from Haydn, Beethoven, popular song and jazz, the mood wavers between an almost circus-like exuberance (“Allegro moderato”), a serious and powerful meditation reminiscent of the second movement of Ravel ‘s G-major concerto (“Lento”), and the almost absurdly dizzying fury of the last movement (“Allegro con brio”).
Mendelssohn: Concerto for piano and violin in D minor
Grandson of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn and son of a prosperous Berlin banker, Félix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) grew up in a household that was frequented by the intellectual elite of the day, from writers to philosophers to musicians. Every week, he would encounter the likes of Hegel and Heine, musicians of the Berlin Philharmonic, up-and-coming singers, and Carl Friedrich Zelter, his first teacher. Carl Maria von Weber, who also visited, also had a marked influence on him. Young Felix composed constantly and feverishly, fed by his readings, family trips and discussions with his sister, Fanny, to whom he showed every draft. In 1822, she wrote in her journal: “I have followed the progression of his talent every step of the way, and I can say that I have always been his only musical advisor. He never puts a thought to paper without first submitting it for my approval, so I have known his works before he has written even a single note.” On December 5th of the same year, he performed for the first time in public, accompanying the singer Anna Milder-Hauptmann, and playing a just completed piano concerto in A minor.
His output in the next year was remarkable: six symphonies, a second piano quartet, a concerto for violin and strings in D minor, a concerto in E major for two pianos, an opera entitled The Two Nephews and a Concerto for piano, violin and string orchestra in D minor. Mendelssohn was well acquainted with the subtleties of both the piano and the violin, which perhaps explains why as soon as he began composing concertos, he was immediately able to achieve a perfection of form honed by past composers. After the 1822 piano concerto, and the concerto for violin a few months later, it was only logical that young Felix should wish to unite their forces in a work of broad scope – generous, brilliant and certainly influenced by the lessons in virtuosity he received from Weber and Hummel (the latter a student of Mozart’s).
© Lucie Renaud
Translation: Peter Christensen