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Beethoven vs Mendelssohn in the Piano Concerto

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Title : Beethoven vs Mendelssohn in the Piano Concerto
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Beethoven vs Mendelssohn in the Piano Concerto

My post yesterday provoked a couple of interesting comments so I would like to do a follow up. Please go and read the post and especially the comments:

https://mexinter.net/2020/03/beethoven-canonic-iconoclast.html

What I was doing in the post was contrasting Beethoven, at the core of the classical music canon, with Mendelssohn, a composer whose position seems to be sinking a bit, and Shostakovich, a composer who is rising in the musical world's estimation. My commentators presented some statistics on the one hand, showing that Mendelssohn is performed quite a lot, and with some words in support of Mendelssohn's piano concertos and of Hummel, a rather neglected composer. Let's set Hummel to one side for now and look at the piano concertos of Mendelssohn alongside those of Beethoven.

But before getting into that, I want to briefly note that mere statistics of how often a composer is performed can be deceiving. As I said in my comment, it is where and by whom that is more important. For example, when Leonard Bernstein conducted the Symphony No. 9 of Beethoven on the occasion of the falling of the Berlin wall, that was acknowledgement that Beethoven, and that work in particular, is at the heart of Western musical culture. When Igor Levit, one of the most promising young pianists today, made his recording debut on Sony he chose to record all five of the Beethoven late piano sonatas. This coming summer, the Salzburg Festival is programming all of the Beethoven piano concertos in one mammoth concert--oh, and Levit is playing all the sonatas in a series of eight recitals. Sure, this is partly because of the Beethoven 250th anniversary. But programming all the sonatas, or all the string quartets, or all the symphonies is not that unusual in a serious European festival. When I was there as a student they had the Alban Berg Quartet playing all the string quartets in a series of concerts and it wasn't any kind of anniversary.

Mendelssohn does not get the same attention. Yes, during 2009, the 200th anniversary of his birth, there was some celebration--a performance of the rarely-heard Symphony No. 2 "Lobgesang" at the 2009 Proms, for example, and a conference at Oxford University. But, very telling, the conference was devoted not just to Mendelssohn, but to four composers who all had an anniversary that year:
This conference combined a consideration of four major composers Purcell, Handel, Haydn and Mendelssohn. Each composer had a relevant anniversary in 2009 – Purcell, 350 years after birth; Handel, 250 years after death; Haydn, 200 years after death; and Mendelssohn, 200 years after birth...
Let's get to the music. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Here is the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Mendelssohn with Stephen Hough and the Radio Philharmonic:


Let's put that alongside the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Beethoven, here played by Krystian Zimerman and the Vienna Philharmonic:


Now, try and remember the opening theme of the Mendelssohn. No? I think that the most salient element in a really outstanding piece of music is its individuality and hence its memorability. Sorry to say, but the Mendelssohn seems almost generic next to the Beethoven. The pianist is playing a forest of notes, but to little effect. Is this just my subjective impression? Do you agree? I don't want to sit down and start analyzing the scores and I think that we can easily hear the difference. How about a different pair of concertos? Here is Mendelssohn's Piano Concerto No. 2:


And Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3, chosen because it is also in a minor key:


Hm, well, more of the same. Undistinguished music from Mendelssohn and really memorable themes from Beethoven. But don't take my word for it. Here is what Robert Schumann had to say about the Mendelssohn:
This concerto, to be sure, will offer virtuosos little in which to show off their monstrous dexterity. Mendelssohn gives them almost nothing to do that they have not already done a hundred times before. We have often heard them complain about it. And not unjustly! ...
One will ask how it compares with his First Concerto. It's the same, and yet not the same; the same because it comes from the same practised master hand, different because it comes ten years later. Sebastian Bach is discernible in the harmonization. The rest, melody, form and instrumentation are all Mendelssohn.


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