Felix Mendelssohn

Piano Concerto in E minor

    Description by Michael Rodman

    If musicology lacks the romance of Indiana Jones-style archaeology, it holds a similar fascination with artifacts. In probing the origins, development, and subtleties of a composer's output, the musicologist is often dependent upon original manuscripts; aspects beyond the notes themselves -- sometimes as arcane as the color of the ink or the watermark of the paper -- can help to pinpoint the date, place, and other details of a work's composition. And, as in archaeology, the discovery of a "lost" or previously unknown treasure is met with curiosity and especial interest. While many such discoveries are on the order of musical potsherds -- odd bits, album leaves, juvenilia -- occasionally a more significant find will result in the introduction of a significant "new" work into a composer's catalogue long after his or her death.

    Some scholars had long postulated the existence of "another" Mendelssohn piano concerto. The composer himself provided the most important clues in his voluminous correspondence; letters written between 1842 and 1844 contain references to "[finishing] a concerto" and "a third concerto." Musicologist R. Larry Todd discovered manuscripts in Mendelssohn's hand for two movements (plus unfinished sketches for a third) of a piano concerto in E minor among papers donated by Mendelssohn descendants to the Bodleian Library at Oxford. Not only was the authenticity of these manuscripts beyond question, but similarities to the nearly contemporaneous Violin Concerto of 1844 (also in E minor and with "linked" movements) suggest that the "third" concerto was either set aside for later completion or abandoned altogether -- perhaps viewed in hindsight by Mendelssohn as compositional stepping stone once work on the more famous concerto had progressed. From at least a historical standpoint, then, the two extant movements of the Piano Concerto in E Minor indeed comprise a bona fide, if incomplete addition to the composer's mature oeuvre.

    It seems perfectly reasonable for Mendelssohn not to have found time to complete the concerto; indeed, it would seem that he had every practical reason to put it on hold. In wearing the hats of composer, conductor, champion of others' music, prolific correspondent, and better-than-competent painter -- not to mention a never-ending stream of social and familial obligations -- Mendelssohn found his plate full to brimming. As these pursuits made increasing demands upon him, Mendelssohn had less enthusiasm for his role as soloist at the keyboard ; to produce a concerto mainly for his own use would have been a pointless pursuit. In looking to these earlier concerti to find a context for the E Minor Concerto, certain characteristics emerge that help to identify aspects of the composer's unmistakable presence. That Mendelssohn recognized and exploited the concerto form's inherent potential for conflict and drama -- as well as virtuosic display -- is clear. This is particularly evident in his preference for minor keys (used in all of his mature concerti) and in the striking contrasts between moments of gravity and alacrity, of moody tension and songful repose. The two main themes of the first movement exhibit such a relationship, following longtime tradition, yet present characteristics of particular note. They clearly share a common source (both are based upon a descending four-note motive that emphasizes the dominant scale degree of their respective keys), though each could scarcely produce an effect more distinct from the other. The opening gesture of the concerto -- striking in its similarity to that which opens Liszt's Concerto in E-flat Major -- presents a downward-surging, dotted motive in unison strings punctuated by a twice-iterated wind chord that provides a dramatic, no-nonsense attention-grabber. The arrival of the second theme allows Mendelssohn to revel in a more typically rhapsodic and expansive manner; one of his "Songs Without Words," it seems, is lurking just below the surface. The work unfolds with all the archetypical characteristics of the Romantic piano concerto: scintillating arpegii, thundering double octaves, the dark ambiguity of diminished seventh chords. Likewise, it is infused with shades and echoes of earlier works by the composer; the con abbandono tutti leading into the second theme recalls the coda of the first movement of the "Italian" Symphony, while the murmuring oscillations of the strings at the beginning of the recapitulation convincingly recreate the atmosphere of the Hebrides Overture. The coda of the first movement--not only for its character, but also for its unbroken transition into the next movement -- strongly suggests the work's kinship with the Violin Concerto. The second movement is introduced by a folklike, minor-key dance in dotted rhythm (providing connection to the themes of the first movement) that is eventually spun into a quick and graceful yet convivial waltz. The gentle melancholia of the original theme settles in again to close the movement in quiet pregnancy and to create a state of expectancy for the unwritten finale which, alas, can only tease the imagination.

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2014 Dutton Laboratories / Frémeaux & Associés CDLX 7312
    2014 Danacord DACOCD 734736
    2009 Decca 4781525
    2009 Arte Nova Classics 88697386222
    1996 Koch 7197
    Decca 00028947816812