MENDELSSOHN Songs Without Words
Perhaps more than most of Mendelssohn’s output, the Songs Without Words have contributed to the saccharine image that history has passed down to us. There’s no doubt that charm is in abundant supply in these pieces, but even in the finest hands, there can be a danger of aural toothache if listened to en masse.
Javier Perianes surmounts this risk completely: first, in the selection itself; second, by interspersing them with some of Mendelssohn’s most brilliant piano pieces; and third, by the playing itself. There’s nothing small-scale about his conception of this music and, where need be, climaxes are bold – in the Capriccioso section of the Rondo capriccioso, for instance, which also exhibits a fantastically puckish quality, or in the tragedy-laden Fugue, whose darkness is only finally salved by a consoling and majestic turn to the major in the closing bars.
He can charm without trying to, thanks to a haloed sound well caught by Harmonia Mundi’s engineers, bringing a subtle range of colours to such a well-known number as the ‘Venetian Gondolier Song’ (Op 62 No 5), while the second of Op 67 gains in wistfulness from the way Perianes allows the phrases to hang in the air. By comparison, Chamayou is altogether more pert, Barenboim a degree or two slower and less spontaneous-sounding. And the Spaniard’s flexibility also makes for a very telling Variations sérieuses. Chamayou’s initial pace is a touch steadier, as if to emphasis the ‘seriousness’, but Perianes reveals that element as the piece progresses: you’re very aware of how much Mendelssohn learnt from Beethoven – appropriately enough as this was originally intended as part of an album to raise money for a statue of Beethoven in Bonn. There’s great clarity to Perianes’s fugal textures and the work’s fleeting moods are masterfully handled. While I wouldn’t be without Perahia’s ineffable performances of this repertoire, this new CD deserves a place alongside it.