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Keyboard Thursday album review: Pianist Howard Shelley's promising Mendelssohn survey

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(Eric Richmond photo)
(Eric Richmond photo)

Felix Mendelssohn doesn’t get enough credit for the tremendous craft that underlies his music. And musicians don’t get enough credit for the skill they have to use to make it sound pretty. So hats off to veteran British pianist Howard Shelley for making magic on the start of his Mendelssohn journey.

mendelssohnHis new album for Britain’s Hyperion label is Felix Mendelssohn, The Complete Solo Piano Music, Vol. 1, so there is going to be a lot more brilliant work to come.

There’s the whiff of the lightweight about Mendelssohn and his music. But, in his day nearly 200 years ago, he was hailed as the greatest keyboard and composition prodigy since Mozart.

Shelley has chosen music from Mendelssohn’s teenagehood — and there isn’t the slightest bit of anything immature in the variegated structures he lays out for us.

Much of the music on this album is also showily virtuosic, starting with a Capriccio from 1825 (Mendelssohn would have been 16).

Here, as in the Seven Character Pieces, which Mendelssohn was working on at the same time (but didn’t collect for publication until 1827) the pianist can show off fiery technique, but there is also pretty music to be made.

This is also music for lovers of counterpoint, as the young composer’s adoration of J.S. Bach comes through, especially in the phenomenal fugue that is the fifth of the Seven Character Pieces.

The Op. 6 E Major Piano Sonata extends over four movements that are a bit of Beethoven, a bit of Schubert, but with a great show of virtuosity that is all Mendelssohn’s in the finale.

The last set of pieces on the disc are the ones that introduced Mendelssohn to the growing legion of middle-class home piano players across Europe: the first volume of his Songs Without Words, Op. 19b.

Few people these days realise that the opus marking is 19b because these six Songs Without Words were meant to be companions to Six Songs, published as 19a. In the comfort of your drawing room, you would accompany a friend as he or she sang, then play a piano solo response to that music — all by the clever Felix, who was now 23.

These are beautiful miniatures that teach budding pianists how to sing with their fingers, but there is plenty to entertain adult ears when they are played with the finesse that Shelley brings to this recording.

This album is a treat from beginning to end, with Shelley knowing exactly to turn from showman to gentle tone painter. This is a classic case of an iron fist in a velvet glove, rendering music with elegance and conviction.

This is Mendelssohn even the most diehard advocate of serious music can appreciate and respect.

For more information on this album, click here.

John Terauds



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