Given that Felix Mendelssohn was one of the greatest pianists of his age, it is surprising that his writing for his own instrument has not stood the test of time, unlike his large-scale orchestral and choral works. The sonatas are not seen as breaking new ground and it’s only the sets of Lieder ohne Worte that have held their own on record and in the concert hall. His 20th-century reputation is for Victorian sentimentality and lack of depth, so his music feels ripe for reassessment.
This appealing selection of early pieces – a sonata, some “characteristic pieces”, a capriccio and the lovely first book of Songs Without Words – reveals a young composer following in the footsteps of Clementi, Hummel and Weber while still paying homage to the great J.S. Bach. There’s plenty to delight here. The madcap Capriccio in F-Sharp Minor, Op 5 is all scurrying figurations and galumphing leaps with a cleverly interpolated fugue in the middle. The seven Charakterstücke are a revelation: crafted, varied and imaginative genre pieces foreshadowing Schumann. The only disappointment is the pretty but rather rambling sonata.
Howard Shelley’s approach is accomplished and respectful, with plenty of insights. Given that so much of Mendelssohn’s output remains under-recorded, this series should attract plenty of followers.