Monday 1 February 2021

Conjuring the image of Felix and Fanny at the piano: Mendelssohn's own piano-duet transcriptions of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' and 'The Fair Melusine'

Mendelssohn A Midsummer Night's Dream, Op.61, Overture "The Fair Melusine"; DuoKeira; Brilliant

Mendelssohn A Midsummer Night's Dream, Op.61, Overture "The Fair Melusine"; DuoKeira; Brilliant Classics

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 1 February 2021 Star rating: 3.0 (★★★)
The Italian piano duo open a window onto 19th century domestic music-making, with Mendelssohn's own arrangements of two of his popular works.

Whilst 19th composers did write original works for piano duet (two pianists at one piano), an astonishing amount of the published piano duet repertoire of the period was arrangements of larger-scale works. The ability of four hands to cope with rich textures probably accounted for a spate of arrangements of symphonies and other orchestral works which began in the 18th century; as early as 1798, a London publisher started issuing Haydn's London symphonies as piano duet. The piano duet became the chief means whereby amateur musicians became familiar with the standard orchestral repertory until the arrival of the gramophone record in the 20th century. The majority of such arrangements were hack-work, done by musicians for money and rarely with any involvement from the original composers.

It is not surprising to find that Felix Mendelssohn wrote music for piano duet, his published duets include Andante con Variazioni, Op. 83a and Andante e Allegro Brillant, Op. 92, the latter written in 1841 and dedicated to Clara Schumann. A lot of Mendlessohn's earlier music was written for performance at home and his sister Fanny was also a pianist and composer, so writing duets for the two of them is not surprising.

What comes as something more of a surprise is that he arranged his popular suite from A Midsummer Night's Dream for piano duet. On this disc from the Italian piano duo, DuoKeira (Michela Chiara Borghese and Sabrina De Carlo) on Brilliant Classics, we have Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Op. 61 and his Overture 'The Fair Melusine' Op. 32 in the composer's own arrangements for piano duet.

Mendelssohn wrote his overture to Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream at the age of 17, it was simply a concert overture. The young composer knew Shakespeare's play well, having read it both in German and in English with his sister. Premiered in 1827, the overture would become popular and Mendelssohn published a piano duet arrangement of it ten years later. Throughout his life, Mendelssohn was notorious for hanging on to works until he was fully satisfied, so that the publication date does not necessarily reflect the date of creation.

If we cut to 1840, King Friedrich Wilhelm IV came to the throne in Prussia. A lover of the theatre, the king had plans to develop Berlin as a cultural centre and Mendelssohn was engaged. He wrote incidental music for a number of stage productions, but many of the court's promises remained unfulfilled and in 1843 he returned to Leipzig where he founded the now famous conservatoire. However, fruit of that Berlin sojourn is music for the cathedral choir, and incidental music for Sophocles' Antigone and Oedipus at Colonnus, Racine's Athalie and Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.  16 years after writing the overture, Mendelssohn returned to it and, apparently effortlessly, re-entered that world to create an entire sequence of music based on it. Mendelssohn's arrangement of the overture and nine pieces from the incidental music was published in 1844, presumably to quickly capitalise on the popularity of the music.

Also on the disc is the composer's arrangement of his concert overture, The Fair Melusine, which is inspired by a mediaeval legend. Mendelssohn wrote the overture in 1833 and it was premiered in London in 1834, but did not win critical acclaim and so Mendelssohn revised it before publishing it in 1835. 

In 2016, DuoKeira performed Dream for Two their festival at the Villa Torlonia Theatre in Rome; this was a performance of Mendelssohn's music for A Midsummer Night's Dream in its piano duet form interspersed with scenes from Shakespeare’s comedy and readings from correspondence between the composer and his sister Fanny.

This is not the first time that Mendelssohn's piano duet version of A Midsummer Night's Dream has appeared on disc, but it is the first recording for The Fair Melusine. In both works, we lack the range of colours that Mendelssohn was able to bring to the orchestral versions, but we notice the composer's sophisticated manipulation of the piano textures. If you can forget the orchestral version, then The Fair Melusine becomes a delightful essay in piano duet music, and we can perhaps imagine Felix and Fanny enjoying themselves performing it with its rippling textures and moments of high drama.

A Midsummer Night's Dream is tricker because it is simply far more familiar; it is perhaps significant the work's recorded history as a piano duet seems to largely involve existing piano duos and few, if any, well-known solo pianists have ventured onto the territory the way they might with Schubert's original works for piano duet. DuoKeira bring out the magic of that opening, conjured from just a few piano chords, and they make the fairy passages delightfully delicate. Yet, whilst they play with lightness and with affection, they cannot quite disguise the heaviness that comes with some of the clunkier writing when there is nothing for it but to write fistfuls of chords. The booklet makes no bones about this being grainier, some of the subtlety is lost. This is not to denigrate the pianists, they work wonderfully well at conjuring a variety of textures, lightening where possible and those fairies are rarely absent. My favourite movement is the transcription of the chorus 'Ye spotted snakes', Mendelssohn's somewhat radical re-working for just four hands creates a tiny bit of magic.

The disc is recorded on a modern Steinway grand, and admirable though this is there were moments when I could not but help wonder what the music would sound like on a piano of Mendelssohn's day.

What the disc gives us is a lovely window into the 19th century drawing room, the exploration of repertoire via transcription for piano duet. And DuoKeira makes a fine case for Mendelssohn's arrangements as works in their own right.

Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809-1847) - Overture The Fair Melusine, Op. 32
Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy - A Midsummer Night's Dream, Op. 61
Duo Keira (Michela Chiara Borghese, Sabrina De Carlo) - piano duet
Recorded 26-28 January 2019, Abbey Rocchi Studios, Rome, Italy

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