Piano Concerto No. 2 in D Minor, op. 40

            Mendelssohn was a prodigy, born into a distinguished family of Jewish bankers and philosophers.  He and his sister Fanny--also a talented composer, conductor, and pianist—were raised in a warm, intellectual, highly supportive artistic family.  They matured early, and a stream of musical compositions flowed from them both.   Mendelssohn was clearly one of the most important German composers of his time, and infused the expressiveness of early romantic music with the clarity and intellectuality of Mozart and Haydn’s classicism.  This exquisite balance found expression in a wide variety of musical genres; Mendelssohn was as at home writing Protestant oratorios such as Elijah and St. Paul as he was composing chamber music and symphonies.   He created a significant body of work in his relatively short life, including major works for orchestra that constitute an important part of today’s repertoire.   These works include five symphonies, six concert overtures, and six concertos.

            His musical style reflects, to a large degree, his upbringing and his personality—it speaks of discipline, balance, and an overall cheerful, largely untroubled mien.   While his compositions reflect solicitude for clear, balanced musical structures, and an obvious avoidance of excess of romantic emotion and empty virtuosity, there is nevertheless a sentimental and emotive quality to them.  And this is certainly true of that genre most likely to fall victim to romantic excess—the piano concerto.  Mendelssohn wrote his first mature piano concerto in 1831—there were several quite good student works, earlier—and in it he advanced some felicitous changes in the form of the first movement.  He did away with the time-honored practice of separately giving both soloist and orchestra a shot at the main themes, and simply telescoped that section into a tighter form.  Both the soloist and the orchestra thereby “share” the single statement of themes.  He also—in a move that reflected a general tendency in the romantic period—joined all three movements for continuity. 

            Mendelssohn enjoyed an enviable reputation in Britain, and his many trips to that country were among his greatest successes.  Newly married to Cécile, on his honeymoon he composed his Piano Concerto No. 2 in the summer of 1837, and gave its première in Birmingham that fall.  The second concerto shares many of the characteristics of the first, given above.  The first and last movements—listen carefully, as all three are blended together—are perfect examples of Mendelssohn’s characteristically brilliant, but somewhat delicate piano figurations.  This certainly is not the bellowing virtuosity of Franz Liszt that we hear here.  The slow movement, to my mind, alludes to the gentle atmosphere in the composer’s famous Songs without Words for solo piano.  It must also be admitted, that Mendelssohn’s performance of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto in England in 1829, only two years after Beethoven’s death, seems reborn in the delicious slow movement.

            Mendelssohn’s piano concertos are not heard in our concert halls nearly as much as his violin concerto, or many of his other works, for that matter.   Their graceful beauty and flawless craftsmanship are a refreshing delight.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan