Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy:
48 Songs without Words
Amir Katz (piano), Gasteig, Munich, 18.1.2009 (BM)
Today, Mendelssohn is most readily associated with his symphonies, as well as other major works involving an orchestra and more, such as Elijah or A Midsummer Nights’ Dream, but there is no reason why these should eclipse his piano compositions, especially since he created a genre which he will always be remembered for, his Songs Without Words. Young Israeli pianist Amir Katz has been presenting all 48 of these at recitals in honour of the composer’s 200th birthday, this being the most recent presentation.
Mendelssohn’s music has customarily been criticized for lacking depth by comparison to his contemporaries Schumann, Brahms or Chopin (not to mention the great masters of baroque music), and though not entirely unjustified, this is also the result of an unfair way of listening to his works. Schumann once referred to his dear friend Felix as the Mozart of the 19th century, presumably for the melodic intuition and poise of his music. Now there is a comparison to make you wonder what Glenn Gould’s take on Mendelssohn might have been – that he died too late, not too soon, as the legendary pianist once disdainfully said of Mozart? But there is nothing of the gleeful mockery characterizing his Mozart sonata recordings in any of the Songs Without Words that Gould committed to vinyl, so apparently whatever it was that got his goat about Mozart it was not something he saw reflected in Mendelssohn. Rather, he appreciated the “placidity, which is the most abundant feature of his music” and “how it can surprise you by the gentlest movement”, as he remarked in his famous interview with Jonathan Cott.
Enough of all this! You must be thinking by now – how was the concert? And I was just getting to that, for it was precisely this placidity that Amir Katz succeeded in putting his finger(s) on. Even in the showier, virtuoso pieces, he never failed to echo the milieu in which they were composed – the prime of the Biedermeier era, a time when overly passionate expressions of feeling were frowned upon. The same goes for the more introspective pieces, particularly of the later opus numbers (the programme was drawn up in strict chronological order, reading like a journal): they all seem to be surrounded by a thin veneer of elegance, or perhaps self-restraint. Katz knows that this brittle sheath must be preserved at all costs, lest the music drift off into the sphere of kitsch, and this is what was most remarkable about his performance, even more so than Katz’s flawless playing. Never hammering out the melody line, in some of the pieces he literally made it soar over the broken chords in the left-hand, handled exquisitely thanks to his subtle touch. Even the liberty he took with the tempo of that all-time favorite, the Duetto, op.38 no.6 (which, alas, he raced through) was instantly forgiven after the ethereal pianissimo he conjured up in the final bars.
The essence of cool in the photographs featured on his website (www.amirkatz.de), Katz is as unassuming on stage as his playing is engaging, and the audience expressed its appreciation with a great deal of applause, resulting in three encores (all of them Chopin warhorses). His recording of the complete Songs Without Words is due to be released this year. So far, though, I still wouldn’t be without Hungarian pianist Péter Nagy’s version; he breezes through these pieces in an understated, yet utterly reverential style, as if he had just recorded them in the composer’s own sitting room.
Mendelssohn’s travels through Europe never took him as far south as Hellas, so the Greek way of saying that ‘less is more’ – ‘too many words are poverty’ – was presumably not what inspired the title for his famous ‘Songs’, though it could well have been. Many contemporary compositions could do with fewer cerebral elements and more melody, something sorely lacking in this day and age – which is why some of these pieces go straight to the heart.
To end, might I remind you that the Vinyl Culture exhibit showing at the Gasteig complex until the end of this month is not to be missed.