Program Notes

It can be debated which composer was the greater child prodigy -- Mozart or Mendelssohn -- but though their early output was similar in size, surely no composer other than Mendelssohn can claim as many "mature" works produced while still in his teens. Several of the string symphonies he wrote at age 12 are still played today; with the String Octet (1825) at age 16 and the incidental music to A Midsummer Night's Dream (1826) at age 17, Mendelssohn established himself early as one of the most gifted composers of his time.

Yet he was still a young man with a young man's fancies, and while visiting Munich in 1831 he found himself making "sheep's eyes" (as he put it) at Delphine von Schauroth, a baroness's daughter. The 22-year-old Mendelssohn wrote to his beloved sister Fanny that everyone "adored" Delphine: "Ministers and counts trot around her like domestic animals in the hen yard." Within three days Mendelssohn had composed most of the particulars of the piano concerto, working in the mornings before and after visiting Delphine. He even told Fanny that his muse had "composed a passage ... that makes a startling effect," but never specified which one. Mendelssohn premiered the piece himself to great success in Munich on October 17. Franz Lizst later made the concerto so popular that Hector Berlioz, in his Evenings with the Orchestra, described a particular Érard piano that had been subjected to the work so many times that it refused to quit playing the concerto until chopped into pieces and burned.

The concerto is compact, dispensing with lengthy orchestral introductions and solo cadenzas, and built with cleverly interlocking motifs and a spareness of form that substitutes a single shared exposition between orchestra and soloist for the traditional double exposition (orchestra introducing a theme that is then restated by the solo). The writing is virtuosic but emotionally direct. As modern pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet describes it: "Every time I approach a piece of his ... it is as though I have been playing it for years. It's not always easy to find the right expression immediately, but Mendelssohn writes his music for the piano with the performer in mind."

The first movement, Molto allegro con fuoco, begins with rushing chromatic chords from the orchestra, quickly taken up by the piano and spun by the full ensemble into an urgent, breathless theme. The piano passages grow increasingly virtuosic, but then segue into a calmer, lyrical second theme. The two themes develop rhapsodically until the violins, violas, and oboes sound a rhythmic four-note pattern, still in G minor, that trumpets and horns transform into a fanfare in E major. This fanfare provides Mendelssohn's connecting device between each of the movements. The piano echos and slows the repeated notes, leading without pause into the Andante second movement. Violas and cellos first state the poignant theme, then the piano expands upon their gentle, song-like melody. The movement ultimately fades to a silence abruptly broken by the return of the fanfare, announcing the rondo finale, Presto. The piano introduces this ebullient G-major theme, complemented by an orchestral part that, though a bit less virtuosic, is no less brilliant. Just before the finale's close, Mendelssohn recalls the lyrical second theme of the first movement, thus tying his final knot between the movements, then ends with a flourish.

February 23, 2003

--Barbara Heninger