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Mendelssohn: Piano Music

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Catalogue No: SOMMCD 0104
Release Date: 01/01/2011
Number of Discs: 1
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A second CD from  the spectacularly gifted young Scottish pianist Alasdair Beatson. This new disc features Piano Music by Mendelssohn, which now joins his warmly received début disc of Op. 1 Schumann, Brahms and Berg (SOMMCD 086) released in 2009 (CD reviews of SOMMCD 086 below).

The following are edited excerpts from CD booklet notes by Christopher Morley, with his kind permission:-

We should not look for overtly spectacular virtuosity in the piano music of Felix Mendelssohn, acclaimed pianist though he was. Instead we find textural elegance, gentle exuberance, subtle inwardness, and a wonderful sense of unity with the instrument and its technical and colouristic capabilities.

The performances on this disc cover most of the years of the composer’s creative output, and reveal some fascinating consistencies over that admittedly short span. Multiple movement works joined as one; the frequency of pianissimo endings; the surprising penchant for F-sharp minor, a key composers had rarely used previously; the perennial delight in the frothy scherzo sparkle which Mendelssohn invented and made his own.

Mendelssohn was all of 17 when he composed the Sonata in E major, Op. 6. This was the period of the miraculous Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture and the equally miraculous Octet for strings, and this sonata is equally revealing of the capabilities of this super-talented young man. It is an intimate work, its four movements running into each other, and cyclically linked.

There is no teenage posturing here, but some touching intimations of the composer’s relative inexperience: on the negative side, some clumsily laid-out left-hand chords, on the positive side, a questing approach which encompasses discord and exploration of  tonalities, an almost Bachian command of counterpoint, the quirky rhythms and syncopations of the F-sharp minor Tempo di Minuetto, and the complex and extended Recitativo. After a spirited galop-cum-polka, the finale subsides on a gentle chord taking in both extremes of the keyboard.

The Variations in E-flat major, Op. 82 come from 1841, when Mendelssohn was at the commanding height of his powers. A simple little chordal theme is announced, its textures and voicings recalling Schumann, with whom by this time Mendelssohn had become both firm friends and colleagues. But the textures change enthrallingly during the short span of this work, encompassing along the way a sombre funeral march as well as a flowing “Song without Words” variation.

Like Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, Mendelssohn’s sets of Songs without Words crop up frequently in his creative output, delightful miniatures which cannot help but inspire the occasional poetic title. And, as in the Grieg works, Mendelssohn’s pieces have been the mainstay of every salon pianist down the years.

The Op. 19 set of Songs without Words was published in London in 1830, under the original title of “Melodies for the Pianoforte”. Number 3 in A major bore the title Jägerlied , and is a  hunting vignette very much in the spirit of the scenes Domenico Scarlatti depicted in his colourful sonatas a century earlier. It builds towards what will seem to be a spectacular ending, but which in reality disappears to an ethereal nothing.

Op.19 no.5 in F-sharp minor is marked “piano agitato”, and breathes much of the same atmosphere as that of Mendelssohn’s Third Symphony, the Scottish, composed years later in 1842. Again, there is the dying fall of a pianissimo conclusion.

The fourth set of Songs without Words (Op.53) was published in Bonn in 1841, and no.2 in E-flat exudes a calmness which belies the constant conflict of a rhythmic pattern of two’s in the right hand riding over three’s in the left.  The soaring violin-like main melody has led to the piece being given the title “The Fleecy Cloud”.

Barcarolles, otherwise known as Venetian Gondola Songs exerted a fascination on composers of piano music in the 19th century and beyond. Chopin and Liszt are to the fore, joined by Mendelssohn in several of his Songs without Words. Sometimes these barcarolles are softly perfumed, romantically redolent of gentle lagoon breezes as they lap the waves so caressingly. Others are dark and sinister, casting a night-time gloom as the gondola perhaps transports a coffin to the offshore cemetery of San Michele.

The Venetianisches Gondellied of 1844 (Op. 62 no.5, in A minor) belongs in the latter category. Its insistent rocking left-hand underpins a desolate right hand crossing over the keys until at last the tritone is announced fortissimo, the interval of the diminished fifth banned for centuries as the “diabolus in musica”. Everything dies away pianissimo.

From the lugubrious to the joyous, the Song without Words Op.67 no.4 (1845), christened “Spinning Song” but also known as the “Bee’s Wedding” is an exhilarating moto perpetuo, lying so gratifyingly under the hands that any reasonably competent pianist can impress his listeners. Like so much of Mendelssohn’s music in this style, it dances and glitters with the sparkle of his own characteristic scherzo template, and is utterly captivating.

In total contrast is the earnest serenity of “Duetto”, the Op.38 no.6 Song without Words from the 1837 collection. Mendelssohn gives the instruction “The two voices must always be very clearly and meaningfully delineated”, for this is indeed a kind of parlour-ballad sung between probably a mezzo-soprano and a baritone over a rippling, harp-like accompaniment.

Dating from the middle period of Mendelssohn’s life comes the Fantasy in F-sharp minor, op, 28, composed in 1833 and dedicated to the great pianist  Ignaz Moscheles. It has somehow acquired the title “Sonate Écossaise”, and perhaps one can indeed sense a brooding, misty atmosphere here, such as the composer would have encountered on his voyage to the Isle of Staffa and Fingal’s Cave.

There are dramatic, quasi-orchestral sounds here, hints of folk-dance with skirling bagpipes (perhaps we take the title too seriously), and a relentless night-ride.


oustanding

The issue is enhanced by the quality of SOMM’s recording, which has warmth, clarity and a very natural balance. Altogether a beautiful disc that has seldom been off my CD player in the last few days.”  Calum MacDonald — International Record Review.

Michael Tumelty, Glasgow Herald, 26/1/10 *****
...a major Scottish musical figure… extraordinary set of performances… pristine pianism… musicianship of the highest order.

“Highly sensitive playing of rare insight” Julian Haylock, Classic FM Magazine

CD Reviews (SOMMCD 086)

Michael Tumelty, Glasgow Herald, 29/8/09 ****
…The lightness, clarity and intellectual coherence of Schumann’s underrated Abegg Variations are gleamingly poetic in Beatson’s hands.  He is equally at home with the purity of Grieg’s Four Pieces, the relatively massive textures of Brahms 1st Sonata, very compact here, and Berg’s great expressionist sonata where the pianist achieves a transparency rare in performances of this one-off composition
.

Nicholas Salwey, International Record Review, September 2009
[the Berg Sonata] receives the most commanding performance…an entirely convincing reading to rank alongside the finest.

Calum MacDonald, International Piano Magazine, July/August 2009
…There’s no question that Beatson is a gifted pianist… a deeply impressive debut disc.

Rising Star of BBC Music Magazine, July 2009

Musical Opinion, March – April 2009
…hugely enjoyable performance… outstanding calibre.

Concert Reviews:
Kenneth Carter, Classical Source, 9/10/08
Beatson is a fine pianist. He has nonchalant technique, winning sensitivity and commanding authority. He ripples, he ruminates and he sparkles. He had a nifty way with a jazz beat and a deliciously irreverent send-up of the romantic cliché. He is also wilful. This attribute renders his performance vital and distinctive.

Kenneth Walton, The Scotsman, 6/10/08
The big surprise of the evening was Beatson, a relatively new kid on the block, but a startling musician who brought his own idiosyncratic zest to Shostakovich’s Concerto No 1 for piano, trumpet and strings.  He sprang into action with positively overt eccentricity, striking up a potent double act with Balsom – devilish protagonist meets elegant diva.

Paul Driver, Sunday Times, 15/1/06

Artistry incarnate – that was Beatson

Annette Morreau, The Independent, 12/1/06 

Beatson’s performance (without score) of Dutilleux‘s 1948 Piano Sonata was outstanding. Here is a young artist of exceptional talent and confidence, making musical sense of all he played.
Stephen Pettitt, Evening Standard, 10/1/06 
…masterly readings… beautifully, poignantly played

Peter Rutherford, Perthshire Advertiser, 2/12/05
…the undoubted highlight of this concert was the masterly performance of Perth virtuoso Alasdair Beatson, in a stunning performance of Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor. Alasdair is rightly earning an international reputation and we are fortunate to hear this first class pianist as he ascends to the top of his profession. The performance had star quality with playing of maturity and musicianship.

Michael Tumelty, The Herald, 27/5/02 

He has an extremely well developed and organised sense of style. His technical hallmarks are precision, clarity and lightness of touch; there is no splashy, hit-or-miss playing in his armoury.

Gisborne Herald
…like a demented Quasimodo…


Alasdair Beatson  is highly regarded as an individual and accomplished musician. In 2003 he won second Prize in the China Shanghai International Piano Competition. For the Park Lane Group, he gave critically acclaimed recitals at the Wigmore Hall and the Purcell Room, receiving excellent reviews in five national papers. He is also a sought-after chamber musician and in the past he has joined the tours of International Musicians Seminar, Prussia Cove, in the UK, and Musicians from Steans Institute, Ravinia Festival, in the USA,  He has also been awarded major chamber piano prizes from the Royal Over-Seas League, in addition to the ROSL Ensemble Prize for his chamber group Ensemble na Mara.

Alasdair studied with John Blakely at the Royal College of Music, London, graduating in 2002 with First Class Honours and a Director’s Golden Jubilee Award. He subsequently completed a Performer’s Diploma at Indiana University, studying with Menahem Pressler. Last year, Alasdair was recipient of a Dewar Arts Award and a grant from the Hope Scott Trust, enabling the purchase of a piano.

Highlights of 2011 include his fourth solo recital at Wigmore Hall, concerto appearances with the Scottish Ensemble, Tapiola Sinfonietta and Ernen “Festival der Zukunft” Orchestra, and performances in Perth (Schubertiad), Charlottesville, Belgium (Resonances), Music at Plush and Aldeburgh festivals.

On This Recording

  1. Piano Sonata: I. Allegretto con espressione
  2. Piano Sonata: II. Tempo di Menuetto
  3. Piano Sonata: III. Recitativo: Adagio e senza tempo
  4. Piano Sonata: IV. Molto allegro e vivace
  5. Variations: Variations in E-Flat Major, Op. 82, MWV U158
  6. Lieder ohne Worte (Songs without Words): No. 3 in A Major, Op. 19b, No. 3, MWV U89, “Jagerlied”
  7. Lieder ohne Worte (Songs without Words): No. 5 in F-Sharp Minor, Op. 19b, No. 5, MWV U90
  8. Lieder ohne Worte (Songs without Words): Lieder ohne Worte (Songs without Words), Book 4, Op. 53: No. 20 in E-Flat Major, Op. 53, No. 2, MWV U109
  9. Lied ohne Worte (Song without Words): Lied ohne Worte (Song without Words), Op. 62, MWV SD 29: No. 29 in A Minor, Op. 62, No. 5, MWV U151, “Venezianisches Gondellied”
  10. : Lied ohne Worte (Song without Words), Book 6, Op. 67: No. 34 in C Major, Op. 67, No. 4, MWV U182, “Spinnerlied”
  11. Lieder ohne Worte (Songs without Words), Book 3: Lieder ohne Worte (Songs without Words), Book 3, Op. 38: No. 18 in A-Flat Major, Op. 38, No. 6, MWV U119, “Duetto”
  12. Fantasia: I. Con moto agitato: Andante
  13. Fantasia: II. Allegro con moto
  14. Fantasia: III. Presto