Up-and-coming French pianist Bertrand Chamayou has played here in Washington at least once, in 2006, the same year he was on the roster at the Gstaad Festival, but I was not able to hear him. I trust that Roland Celette, the ever-vigilant Cultural Attaché at the French Embassy, will bring him back to Washington eventually. In the liner notes for his first disc on the Naïve label, Chamayou asks the question, Why do "the vast majority of pianists so seldom frequent the works of Mendelssohn?" It's true that, in my memory of being a piano student, only one of my fellow-sufferers was ever assigned Mendelssohn by a teacher, and that was a set of Songs without Words, which are the pieces one is likely to know. Is the music worth knowing?
Mendelssohn, Piano Pieces and Transcriptions, B. Chamayou
(released June 24, 2008)
Naïve V 5131
Felix Mendelssohn, Piano Pieces
Mostly it is, at least with Bertrand Chamayou to champion it. True, some works still feel like empty showpieces, no matter how brilliant Chamayou's fingerwork (the op. 104 etudes, possibly excluding no. 2). The third etude in that set would make a knock-out encore piece, especially after a Spanish-flavored program. In fact, so much of the Mendelssohn piano corpus would work beautifully as encore pieces, which says something about it. Much of the program consists of sparkly miniatures (a prelude, several Songs without Words), but it is anchored on three more substantial pieces, none of them all that familiar. The Variations sérieuses, composed to raise money for the construction of a monument to Beethoven in Bonn, veer between flashy technical excesses and somber, Bach-influenced counterpoint. The Rondo capriccioso, op. 14, may have a pretty vapid slow section, but the Presto is a romp of gossamer-winged lightness, taken here at a death-defying tempo. The two (of three) Caprices, op. 33, are longer works but noteworthy more for their technical challenges than their musical interest.
To round out the tribute, Chamayou includes three Mendelssohn transcriptions, concluding with the famous Scherzo from Midsummer Night's Dream arranged by Rachmaninoff -- a whole lot of repeated notes that sound impressively light and airy. Two songs arranged by Liszt include Auf Flügeln des Gesanges, from Sechs Gesänge (op. 34, no. 2), on a poem by Heinrich Heine, and Suleika (op. 57, no. 3), on a poem by Goethe, both mostly in the dreamy Liszt style rather than the outrageous one. Throughout, Chamayou's pianism is athletic, sure-fingered, and fleet, making for diverting listening. American listeners can hopefully look forward to Chamayou's first recording, of Liszt's Transcendental Etudes, and his latest project, the Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant-Jésus, for the Messiaen Year.