Piano Concerto No. 1
Length: c. 20 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings, and solo piano
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: August 12, 1950, Arthur Fiedler conducting, with soloist Jésus María Sanromá
Mendelssohn was a brilliant pianist who took immediate advantage of the technical advances that had been applied to the piano as he came of age. It was now a bigger, heavier, louder instrument capable of filling a concert hall with sound and able to meet the modern orchestra on equal terms. Above all, it had a glittering new upper octave which invited the player's right hand to indulge those dazzling runs and arpeggios that fill all the concertos of the Romantic period. Mendelssohn was thoroughly at home in this style and he had superbly fluent fingers.
All this is evident in his G-minor Concerto, composed in Munich in 1831 when Mendelssohn was 21. He had just returned from a long stay in Italy, where he had completed his overture The Hebrides and begun the "Italian" Symphony. In Munich on his journey south, a young pianist named Delphine von Schauroth had caught his eye, so his reason for returning there may have been to renew this promising acquaintance, and he composed the Concerto with her in mind. Her family seems to have had some expectation of marriage, but Mendelssohn, for reasons we can only guess, decided it was not to be, and he left Munich full of guilty feelings.
He gave the first performance of the Concerto in Munich himself, with a second performance soon afterwards in London, where the score was published. He played it many times in the course of his short career, and it was always received warmly by public and press. Apart from being full of agreeable melodies and brilliant passage-work, the Concerto exhibits Mendelssohn's near-obsession with the problem of making the separate movements of symphonies and concertos belong together in a seamless whole. In the case of this Concerto (and his well-known Violin Concerto, which followed toward the end of his life) the movements run continuously, so that the vigorous opening Allegro concludes with the trumpets and horns hammering out a rhythm that impels the piano to improvise its way into the new tempo and the new key (E). The same call on the brass leads the serene middle movement into the cascades of notes that introduce the finale, in the major key. Just to drive the point home, before the finale is quite over, Mendelssohn slows the tempo to recall the second subject of the first movement. Then the Concerto can finish in a flourish of virtuosity.
- Hugh Macdonald is general editor of The New Berlioz Edition and a professor of music at Washington University in St. Louis.