Mendelssohn Fantasies, Caprices, Variations Dynamic

Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809-1847)
Fantasy on ‘The last Rose of Summer’ in E major Op.15 (1830)
Trois Fantaisies ou Caprices Op.16 (1829)
Fantasy in F sharp minor Op.28 (1833)
Trois Caprices Op.33 (1833)
Variations sérieuses in D minor Op.54 (1841)
Andante con variazioni in E flat major Op.82 (1841)
Shihyun Lee (piano)
rec. 2023, La Gi.A.R.A Musical Studio, Modica, Italy
Dynamic CDS8005 [80]

I have a great deal of Mendelssohn’s piano music in my collection and perhaps because he is so well represented on record I perhaps have a mistaken view of how well known it is. His named symphonies and Hebrides overture, the violin concerto and first piano concerto, A Midsummer night’s dream selections and the piano trios are familiar to concert-goers but in all the piano recitals I have attended I realise that the only work of his that I have heard live is Variations serieuses and that only once – played by Anya Alexeev in case you’re wondering and very good it was.

Those variations appear here alongside a less familiar set as well as several Fantasies and Caprices that date from his early twenties showcasing in a rather neat recital the imagination and range that once made his Songs without Words so popular. Shihyun Lee opens with the Fantasy on ‘the last Rose of Summer’, a work that Mendelssohn first considered in 1827 and, as Kenneth Hamilton notes, its figuration pays homage to Beethoven who died that year. The work is more of a Fantasy that includes the last rose of summer as neither the extended agitato sections that bridge the two appearances of the Irish tune nor the lyrical coda refer to it. Perhaps Mendelssohn wanted to benefit from the popularity of the melody and join the host of other composers who were inspired by it but it is nonetheless and attractive fantasy. The three Fantaisies ou Caprices of 1829 include the once ubiquitous Scherzo in E minor, Mendelssohn at his most elfin, which has overshadowed its companions. The first opens with an andante in A minor before diminished arpeggios lead to the allegro vivace hunting chorus which itself segues back into the calmer mood of the opening. The last is like a song without words and would bear inclusion in that set were it a little shorter.

The Fantasy in F sharp minor is sometimes called the sonata écossaise though its sonata like features don’t really extend beyond the multi movement structure – minus a slow movement – and the Scottish link appears to be more about his visits to the country than any thematic connection; it was written around the same time as his Hebrides overture. The delicate arpeggios that open the piece lead to a beautifully melancholic theme, one of my favourite in Mendelssohn’s canon, and the movement is divided between agitated writing based on the opening and development of the first theme. A humorous and quite Beethoven like allegro con moto is a bubbly if fairly relaxed scherzo and the fantasy ends with a glorious presto finale that is one of Mendelssohn’s most taxing workouts for the fingers but still has plenty of lyricism along the way. The three Caprices op.33 date from 1834, 1835 and 1833 respectively; the first opens with upwardly rising arpeggios, somewhat similar to the  fantasy op.28 but the main body of the piece is a tempestuous presto agitato written in fast triplets that announces itself with fanfare like dotted chords. A lyrical melody appears among these swirling triplets and leads to a second theme, brazen and chordal. The second also has a swirl of notes but here they lend a gracious lilt to this sunlit work. The tempests return for the final Caprice, its slow chordal introduction with bass rumblings hinting at the storm on the horizon. The storm breaks in a furious presto con fuoco that for all its fury asks for lots of fast and exposed pianissimo playing. 

The Variations sérieuses were written in response to a veritable cascade of trivial variations sets that were published in the early 19th century. I fell in love with it as teenager hearing Horowitz’s marvellous recording and still occasionally try to get my fingers around it – one day perhaps – and it remains one of Mendelssohn’s most remarkable piano works. Serious it may be but Mendelssohn brings a huge amount of contrast and variety; the first nine variations are a masterclass in keyboard figuration and carefully controlled increase of momentum. At the point where variation nine’s triplets might suggest that perhaps frivolity isn’t so bad Mendelssohn takes us to Bach with a stately contrapuntal variation keeping us back on track. Before the fiery coda there are two wonderful variations that for me manage to shine over the others; variation 14, a sublime adagio in the major key and variation 13 where the baritone sings the theme surrounded by a susurration of bustling staccato notes. The Variations sérieuses are a hard act to follow and for all their fine qualities the Variations in E flat major op.82 written in the same year don’t match their genius and inspiration. The theme is followed by five variations; Schumann-like in the first and with a flowing left hand in the second. The third variation features repeated chords that alternate registration on the keyboard, chattering like a pair of gossips and variation four is an engaging little march. The final variation surrounds the theme with chromatic demi-semiquavers though the mood is still reserved and this leads directly into the coda and tranquil ending.

Throughout this recital Korean-born pianist Shihyun Lee impresses with her superb technical facility as well as a sure feel for the ebb and flow even in the most demanding passages. Her pedalling stands out bringing a wonderfully atmospheric quality to the improvisatory opening of the Fantasy op.28 for example and her tone is consistently clear and warm, recorded in wonderful sound. I’m so glad this CD came my way.

Rob Challinor

Help us financially by purchasing from

Presto Music
Arkiv Music