Tuesday, 7 January 2020

The other concertos: Mendelssohn's Double Concerto & Piano Concerto from the Stankov Ensemble

Mendelssohn Piano Concerto No. 1, Double Concerto; Ivo Stankov, Lachezar Stankov, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Linus Lerner; Meridian
Mendelssohn Piano Concerto No. 1, Double Concerto; Ivo Stankov, Lachezar Stankov, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Linus Lerner; Meridian
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 January 2020 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
A chance to explore Mendelssohn's other concertos

The sheer fame and beauty of Felix Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto seems to blind us to the virtues of many of his other concertos. On this new disc from the Stankov Ensemble on Meridian Meridian, brothers Ivo Stankov (violin) and Lachezar Stankov (piano) give us Mendelssohn's Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor Op.25, and Double Concerto in D minor (Concerto for Violin Piano and Orchestra), with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Linus Lerner. The Double Concerto is performed in Mendelssohn's later version with woodwind, brass and timpani rather than the original with just string orchestra.

Mendelssohn's Piano Concerto No. 1 was written in 1830-31 around the same time as his Italian Symphony. It seems to have been inspired by pianist that he met at a party in Munich, but though dedicated to her in fact Mendelssohn premiered it himself. It uses a few techniques which we now associate with the Romantic concerto and is arguably one of the first of its type. At the opening the piano comes in almost immediately, without the conventional orchestral peroration, and though in three movements the three are linked as one continuous whole.

The first movement opens in dramatic fashion, after a short but powerful orchestral tutti the piano enters with drama and it is only later that Lachezar Stankov gets to show his poetic side. But overall it is the sense of Romantic drama which comes over both from the piano and the orchestra. Then a lovely poetic piano passage leads into the slow movement. Here Lachezar Stankov does really show us his sense of poetry and ability to shape a line, and in the final movement, it is his turn to dazzle as Mendelssohn contrasts sparkling piano writing with drama in the orchestra.

Mendelssohn's Double Concerto for violin and piano is a rather earlier work, dating from 1823 when he composed it for private performance at the home of his violin teacher. He went on to revise it, adding woodwind, brass and timpani parts and it was probably the first work in which he wrote for these forces. Like a number of works from his teenage years, the piece remained unpublished during Mendelssohn's lifetime partly out of his habit of returning to works and revising them. The concerto's relative neglect is perhaps owing to it not appearing in a critical edition in print until 1999, but also because the writing for the soloists requires good timing and rapport, it is very much a concerto for a duo rather than two star soloists, and as such suits the Stankov Ensemble down to a tee.

The first movement opens with a long Beethovenian orchestral introduction, though the structure of the movement is more Baroque concerto with the soloists alternating with orchestral tuttis. This can seem a bit over-serious and intent on impressing at first, but the two soloists bring a great deal of Romantic bravura to their rhapsodic opening entry, and throughout they impress with the way their performances interlink and dove-tail. It has to be admitted that Mendelssohn's writing is slightly one-sided in that there are passages where the piano's accompanying figures support the violin, but few (if any) where the violin plays an accompanying role, perhaps because it was written for his violin teacher!

Ivo Stankov has a lovely sweet, narrow-bore tone which suits the music well and on the piano Lachezar Stankov knows when to hold back and when to step forward and dazzle. And there are plenty of moments like that. Once the first movement gets going, it is really fun and the seriousness of the opening is often forgotten. It is a long movement, perhaps a little too long at nearly 20 minutes, but the young (14!) composer was clearly trying to impress. The second movement is suitably lyrical and tender, with much delicate playing from both instrumentalists. They bring a nice flexibility to the way Mendelssohn writes, especially the solo duet moments with no orchestral support. In the final movement an element of seriousness returns, but Mendelssohn cannot resist some perkily delightful writing for the two soloists and what makes the whole concerto work is the sense that Ivo and Lachezar are really enjoying themselves.

Under conductor Linus Lerner the orchestra takes a very traditional view of Mendelssohn, giving us the large scale, modern instrument performance without a hint of the historically informed. But then this fits with the soloists' approach and is a perfectly valid response. The quality of the music making is high, and this is a delightful way to discover some of Mendelssohn's other concertos.

Ivo and Lachezar Stankov performing with the Varna Philarmonic
Ivo and Lachezar Stankov performing with the Varna Philarmonic
I have to confess that I found the sound a bit boxy, particularly in the Piano Concerto, but once used to it there is much to enjoy on this disc, which gives us a chance to explore Mendelssohn's concertos and to hear the Double Concerto performed in its revised version by a fine established duo.

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) - Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1 in G minor, Op.25
Felix Mendelssohn - Concerto for Violin, Piano and Orchestra in D minor
Ivo Stankov (violin)
Lachezar Stankov (piano)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Linus Lerner (conductor)
Recorded in Whitgift School, Croydon, 30-31 May 2019
MERIDIAN CDE84656 1CD [64.06]
Available from Amazon.

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