Déjà Review: this review was first published in September 2004 and the recording is still available.

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
Piano Sonata in E Op.6 (1826)
Piano Sonata in G minor Op.105 (1821)
Piano Sonata in B flat Op.106 (1827)
Rondo capriccioso in E Op.14 (1824)
Frederic Chiu (piano)
rec. 1993, Salle Adyar, Paris, France
Harmonia Mundi HCX3957117 [67]

“Dazzling” – Gramophone is emblazoned on the front of the booklet of this disc. But don’t reach for the sunglasses just yet. To start with, Mendelssohn’s piano sonatas are hardly dazzling music. Frederic Chiu’s playing is interesting and sensitive but I remained unbedazzled. I was also mean enough to find a review of the original release of this disc on Gramofile and, perhaps, should not have been surprised that nowhere in it did the word “dazzling” appear. Overall, the review was rather lukewarm. Probably, somewhere in the magazine’s august pages the words “Chiu” and “dazzling” are inextricably linked but not here.

Enough carping! I suspect I enjoyed this disc more than the Gramophone reviewer and there is not a lot of competition in the field. Mendelssohn sonatas are all youthful works (a relative term considering he died at the age of 38) – the last appearing at the age of 18. Those with an eye for keys and opus numbers may already have spotted that “Piano Sonata in B flat Op.106” is not a unique musical occurrence. This was not lost on Mendelssohn who sent it to his sister, Fanny, as a birthday present. Mendelssohn’s “Hammerklavier” is loosely modeled on the greatest of all piano sonatas – four movements with scherzo placed second. The opening theme has a certain grandeur but the composer never really intended to compete with Beethoven and his andante and finale, though charming, completely lack gravitas. The whole sonata lasts 19 minutes and 40 seconds, over 2 minutes less than the slow movement of Solomon’s great recording of the Hammerklavier. The other sonatas are also enjoyable without being great music. The G minor is in three movements and was written when Mendelssohn was 12, reminding us that he was in the same division of childhood prodigiousness as Mozart. The rondo capriccioso is an attractive bonus to complete the disc and reinforced my notion that Mendelssohn was often more inspired in short forms, at least when writing for the piano.

The E major sonata opens the disc and was the only piece with which I was previously familiar. Comparisons with Benjamin Frith’s account on Naxos (8.550940) revealed “swings and roundabouts”. Chiu is markedly quicker in both inner movements, to my mind advantageously so. However, in both outer movements Frith seems to capture the spirit of the music more effectively. But both accounts are more than acceptable. Frith seems to be recording an extensive Mendelssohn series for Naxos and his sonatas are spread between discs. Thus Chiu’s disc definitely has a place and is the most obvious choice for a single disc of Mendelssohn’s sonatas, particularly as it is now at bargain price.

The recorded sound is very natural and the booklet contains a useful essay on the sonatas by Chiu, complete with musical illustrations. All in all, this is worthy playing but the music rarely fizzles or sizzles and never dazzles.

Patrick C Waller

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