Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy: Songs Without Words

Media Review / Listening Diary 2015-10-26

2015-10-26 — Original posting
2016-08-12 — Brushed up for better readability

Table of Contents

Introduction / The CDs

Ilse von Alpenheim (1980)

Mendelssohn: Lieder ohne Worte — Ilse von Alpenheim; CD cover

Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy: Lieder ohne Worte (Songs without words)

Ilse von Alpenheim

Philips (2 CDs, stereo); ℗ 1993 / © 1994
Booklet: 7 pp., English
Note: Limited availability

Mendelssohn: Lieder ohne Worte — Ilse von Alpenheim; CD, UPC-A barcode
amazon media link

Fritz Kreisler, Arpád Sándor (1926)

Beethoven / Mendelssohn: Violin concertos, Kreisler, Blech, CD, cover

Beethoven & Mendelssohn: Violin Concertos
Mendelssohn: Lied ohne Worte op.62/1, “May Breeze” (arranged by Fritz Kreisler)

Fritz Kreisler, Arpád Sándor, Leo Blech, Orchester der Berliner Staatsoper (1926)

Naxos historical 8.110909 (CD, mono); ℗ / © 2000
Booklet: 4 pp., English

Beethoven / Mendelssohn: Violin concertos, Kreisler, Blech, CD, UPC-A barcode
amazon media link

Arthur Rubinstein (1950)

Rubinstein, The Complete Album Collection (142 CDs), cover, CD # 32

Arthur Rubinstein — The Complete Album Collection
CD #32: Rubinstein Encores

SONY Classical 88691936912 (142 CDs / 2 DVDs, mono / stereo); ℗ / © 2011
Documentation 162 pp., track listing on CD sleeve

Rubinstein, The Complete Album Collection (142 CDs), UPC-A barcode
Rubinstein, The Complete Album Collection (142 CDs), Top cover
amazon media link

Arthur Rubinstein (1975)

Rubinstein, The Complete Album Collection (142 CDs), cover, CD # 136 - 137

Arthur Rubinstein — The Complete Album Collection
CDs #136/137: Rubinstein — The Benefit Recital for Israel
Music by Beethoven, Schumann, Debussy, Chopin, Mendelssohn

SONY Classical 88691936912 (142 CDs / 2 DVDs, mono / stereo); ℗ / © 2011
Documentation 162 pp., track listing on CD sleeve

Rubinstein, The Complete Album Collection (142 CDs), UPC-A barcode
Rubinstein, The Complete Album Collection (142 CDs), Top cover
amazon media link

Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words

The Lieder ohne Worte (Songs without Words) by Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809 – 1847) weren’t present in my library, with a single exception — Arthur Rubinstein played the “Spinnerlied” (op.67/4) as encore. Rubinstein’s “Complete Album Collection” includes two instances of this. I discussed it in my Listening Diary of 2015-05-09 — see also below. My interest in a complete recording of all Lieder ohne Worte wasn’t’ two urgent, so I did not pursue this very actively.

This changed when I attended a piano recital by Stephen Kovacevic in Baden, on 2015-09-18. Prior to this recital I attended a radio interview with Ilse von Alpenheim (*1927). The Swiss pianist Oliver Schnyder (*1973) also participated in this interview. He mentioned that during his studies in the U.S. he was playing several of Mendelssohn’s “Songs without Words” as part of his musical education. His first encounter with Ilse von Alpenheim was through her complete recording of these pieces on CD that he found in a shop. He stated that to this day, this has remained a reference recording to him.

This statement, and the examples that we heard during that interview caused me to look for this recording myself. Sadly, it seems hard to get (possibly only as second-hand or used copy). But I was able to locate one with Amazon US. See the first CD set shown above.

The Compositions

Mendelssohn wrote eight books of six Songs without Words each, published in 8 Volumes:

  1. op.19 (1829–1830),
  2. op.30 (1833–1834),
  3. op.38 (1836–1837),
  4. op.53 (1839–1841),
  5. op.62 (1842–1844),
  6. op.67 (1843–1845),
  7. op.85 (1834–1845), and
  8. op.102 (1842–1845).

The last volume (op.102) only appeared in print after the composer’s death. Let me add an interactive (sortable) list of all of Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words, with the timing in Ilse von Alpenheim‘s recording / CD set:

List of Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy's Songs without Words
Song without Words Vol.1, op.19/1E majorSweet RemembranceAndante con moto2:56
Song without Words Vol.1, op.19/2a minorRegretsAndante espressivo3:15
Song without Words Vol.1, op.19/3A majorJägerlied / Hunting SongMolto allegro e vivace2:11
Song without Words Vol.1, op.19/4A majorModerato2:14
Song without Words Vol.1, op.19/5F♯ minorPoco agitato2:55
Song without Words Vol.1, op.19/6G minor1. Barcarolle, Venetian Gondola SongAndante sostenuto2:50
Song without Words Vol.2, op.30/1E♭ majorAndante espressivo4:23
Song without Words Vol.2, op.30/2B♭ minorAllegro di molto2:05
Song without Words Vol.2, op.30/3E majorConsolationAllegro non troppo2:21
Song without Words Vol.2, op.30/4B minorAdagio non troppo2:37
Song without Words Vol.2, op.30/5D majorAndante grazioso1:56
Song without Words Vol.2, op.30/6F♯ minor2. Barcarolle, Venetian Gondola SongAllegretto tranquillo3:22
Song without Words Vol.3, op.38/1E♭ majorCon moto, cantabile1:57
Song without Words Vol.3, op.38/2C minorAllegro non troppo1:49
Song without Words Vol.3, op.38/3E majorLa harpe du poète / The Poet's HarpPresto e molto vivace2:22
Song without Words Vol.3, op.38/4A majorAndante2:58
Song without Words Vol.3, op.38/5a minorAppassionataAgitato2:22
Song without Words Vol.3, op.38/6A♭ majorDuettoAndante con moto3:06
Song without Words Vol.4, op.53/1A♭ majorAndante con moto4:38
Song without Words Vol.4, op.53/2E♭ majorThe Fleecy CloudAllegro non troppo2:34
Song without Words Vol.4, op.53/3G minorPresto agitato2:25
Song without Words Vol.4, op.53/4F majorSadness of SoulAdagio3:23
Song without Words Vol.4, op.53/5a minorVolkslied / FolksongAllegro con fuoco2:42
Song without Words Vol.4, op.53/6A majorLa fuiteMolto allegro vivace3:08
Song without Words Vol.5, op.62/1G majorMay BreezesAndante espressivo3:16
Song without Words Vol.5, op.62/2B♭ majorAllegro con fuoco1:53
Song without Words Vol.5, op.62/3e minorTrauermarsch / Funeral MarchAndante maestoso3:26
Song without Words Vol.5, op.62/4G majorMorning SongAllegro con anima1:19
Song without Words Vol.5, op.62/5a minor3. Barcarolle, Venetian Gondola SongAndante con moto2:50
Song without Words Vol.5, op.62/6A majorFrühlingslied /Spring SongAllegretto grazioso2:23
Song without Words Vol.6, op.67/1E♭ majorAndante2:49
Song without Words Vol.6, op.67/2F♯ minorLost IllusionsAllegro leggiero1:57
Song without Words Vol.6, op.67/3B♭ majorAndante tranquillo2:47
Song without Words Vol.6, op.67/4C majorSpinnerlied / Spinning SongPresto1:51
Song without Words Vol.6, op.67/5B minorThe Shepherd's ComplaintModerato2:30
Song without Words Vol.6, op.67/6E majorWiegenlied / Cradling SongAllegretto non troppo3:04
Song without Words Vol.7, op.85/1F majorAndante espressivo2:41
Song without Words Vol.7, op.85/2a minorAllegro agitato0:49
Song without Words Vol.7, op.85/3E♭ majorPresto2:24
Song without Words Vol.7, op.85/4D majorElegyAndante sostenuto3:07
Song without Words Vol.7, op.85/5A majorAllegretto1:38
Song without Words Vol.7, op.85/6B♭ majorAllegretto con moto2:06
Song without Words Vol.8, op.102/1e minorAndante un poco agitato2:35
Song without Words Vol.8, op.102/2D majorAdagio3:20
Song without Words Vol.8, op.102/3C majorTarantellePresto1:20
Song without Words Vol.8, op.102/4G minorUn poco agitato ma andante2:14
Song without Words Vol.8, op.102/5A majorKinderstück / Children's PieceAllegro vivace1:18
Song without Words Vol.8, op.102/6C majorBeliefAndante2:28

I won’t discuss all of these 48 pieces in detail, nor will I discuss their musicological background (you can find information about their creation etc. on Wikipedia). I’ll rather focus on general remarks here.

Inadequate Public Comments

Prior to the purchase, I could not resist glancing through the amazon comments. Almost inevitably, the first thing that struck my eye was a really bad comment. The reviewer firmly stated that he could not recommend this recording, because the pianist does not have the required artistic abilities / means, etc. … As it seems impossible to have a decent discussion on that channel (e.g., I mean, a discussion that does not end up in insults, fecal language or in a religious discourse, etc.) I decided never to participate in amazon discussions.

Instead, after having listened through the entire set several times, let me respond indirectly here, through my blog:

A General Response to Such Comments

It is true that Mendelssohn has written lots of piano music (in particular, his piano concertos, but also chamber music, such as his piano trios) that is very virtuosic, brilliant, often demanding on the artist (pages filled with very small note values!). This requires not only fast fingers, but excellent technique, in order to achieve and maintain clarity and transparency. A period instrument may be very helpful in this, see my blog posts on the piano trios op.49 and op.66.

Lots of that piano music Mendelssohn wrote for his own “consumption”: pieces that he would play himself at public and private concerts. He obviously liked showing off his technical skills!

However, these “Lieder ohne Worte” are a different story altogether:. These are mostly intimate pieces. Many or most he wrote as present for his beloved sister Fanny Mendelssohn (Fanny Hensel after her marriage), with whom he shared a very close relationship. This music is part of an intimate conversation, in which the composer expresses the warm feelings that he and his sister had for each other. Hence, people who look for virtuosity and brilliance in these pieces are completely on the wrong track. What is required here is expression and emotion.

Ilse von Alpenheim’s Recording

In her recording from 1980, Ilse von Alpenheim does not lack virtuosity. But to her, that’s a mere basis for her really excellent, expressive playing, not something to show off! Actually, I can fully understand why for Oliver Schnyder this is still a reference recording. Clarity and transparency are not the dominant aspects here, but rather lucidity in expression, and Ilse von Alpenheim is excellent at that!

Yes, there are some more virtuosic pieces among these 48 songs. But I could not point to a single one with technical deficiencies. Ilse von Alpenheim plays with a soft touch, a warm, rounded tone, never harsh or extroverted, nor ever cold, polished etc.

Comments on Selected Pieces

A Virtuosic Example — the “Spinning Song”, op.67/4

One can nicely illustrate this with the Song without Words in C major, op.67/4 (Presto). People call this the “Spinning Song” or “Spinnerlied”. That title is actually not by the composer. It presumably refers to the movement of a spinning wheel, or a spinning spindle. Incidentally, in German, that surname also has the meaning of a “mad man’s song”).

Arthur Rubinstein used to play the op.67/4 as one of his many encores. CD #3 above is from 1950 and is a selection of his encores. He plays this very fast, fairly brilliant, obviously. That’s what the audiences expected after a concert. But compared to Ilse von Alpenheim’s recording from 1980, it sounds superficial, often rushed, lacking depth.

There is a second, live recording from 1975, with Rubinstein playing this piece, again as an encore. Actually, it is his last recorded solo-piece (CD #4 above). The artist still masters this amazingly well. But one can definitely also see technical limitations, occasionally forcing the artist to slow down. There are also pedaling errors, etc.: Rubinstein was 88 at that time! I have written some additional comments on these two tracks in my posting “Haydn, Mendelssohn (Diary 2014-05-09)”.

Ilse von Alpenheim’s interpretation never feels rushed, but is definitely still Presto — controlled, though. Her playing is transparent and clear enough, joy- and playful. In her hands, this is a lovely piece. I prefer this over both of Rubinstein’s interpretations!

May Breezes, op.62/1

As I’m mentioning the scarce duplicates in my library: I have a CD with the Mendelssohn and Beethoven violin concertos, with Fritz Kreisler (1875 – 1962), violin, and Leo Blech conducting the Orchestra of the Berlin State Opera, CD #2 above. That CD also includes a transcription of Mendelssohn’s Song without Words in G major, op.62/1, “May Breezes” (Andante espressivo) for violin and piano. The transcription is by Fritz Kreisler, who is playing with Arpád Sándor (1896 – 1972) at the piano.

That recording is from 1926 and has its technical limitations. But actually, the sound is amazingly good for a recording that is now almost 90 years old! However, Kreisler’s transcription — as nice as it is — is quite far away from Mendelssohn’s original. Kreisler added a piano introduction, there are also changes in the harmonies.

It remains a nice piece, though, with the obvious romanticism (vibrato, portamento / glissando) that was popular in those days. Ilse von Alpenheim’s recording of the original version is very nice, but hardly comparable at all.

General Comments on Ilse von Alpenheim’s Interpretation

I should also add that Ilse von Alpenheim keeps the pieces within the realm of their designation: relatively simple, almost straightforward, not overblown or overloaded with emotionality (e.g., excessively slow). There are some real gems in this collection (both as compositions, as well as in their interpretation)! In their entirety, Ilse von Alpenheim’s recording of all 48 Songs without Words is something I can really recommend.

That’s just over 2 hours of very nice music, often intimate, contemplative, but with plenty variability / diversity. I have no problem at all listening to these two hours in one stretch. And I fully agree with Oliver Schnyder’s statement, calling this a reference recording!

Sure, newer recordings may have better sound. There are also a few (rare) instances where I feel that Ilse von Alpenheim’s instrument deserved some extra regulation: some of the hammers may be out of shape. But this could also (partially) be the result of an odd microphone placement.

My readers will know that I’m a big fan of using period instruments for romantic, classic and older music (see also above). However, with pieces such as these Songs without Words, with their limited complexity and lack of extroverted virtuosity, I think that a modern grand piano is perfectly adequate. At no point in these over 2 hours of music my mind was longing for the sound, the lightness and the agility of a period instrument (or a replica).

Additional Pieces on Ilse von Alpenheim’s Recording

There are three additional pieces by Mendelssohn Bartholdy in Ilse von Alpenheim‘s recording / CD set:

  • Andante cantabile e presto agitato in B major (8:26)
  • Andante con variazioni in E♭ major, op.82 (7:16)
  • Variations in B♭ major, op.83 (8:24)

One is tempted to say “at least, there are also some bigger pieces on these CDs!” — though, of course, the two sets of variations are fragmented by nature. All three of these are very nice music:

Andante cantabile e presto agitato in B major

The only longer piece really is the Andante cantabile e presto agitato in B major (3 + 5.5 minutes). The presto agitato is the most virtuosic (and technically probably most demanding) piece in this collection, played really well by Ilse von Alpenheim. Though also here, virtuosity is not a feature for itself or something to show off, but a means of expressing emotionality. That presto agitato is also the farthest away from the general theme “Song” of this CD set, though the first part of this piece, Andante cantabile, obviously is in line with the “Songs without Words”.

Variations, op.83

The two sets of variations, on the other hand, are based on song-like themes — very much so: the Variations op.83 (B♭ major) have the more introverted, reflecting theme. It often moves into minor tonalities over the course of the variations. There are also rather virtuosic variations. Several Passages reminded me of Schubert’s cycle “Winterreise” (Winter Journey), op.89 / D.911. Needless to say: very nice music, for sure, which I’m thoroughly enjoying!

Andante con variazioni, op.82

The relationship to songs is even closer with the Andante con variazioni in E♭ major, op.82 here’s the theme for these variations:

Theme to Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy’s Andante con variazioni in E♭ major, op.82

A Link to Schubert?

Now, when I first heard this, it was immediately obvious to me that this is virtually identical to (slightly simplified from) the theme of Franz Schubert’s Lied “An den Mond”, D.296 (“Füllest wieder Busch und Tal“, after a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe):

Theme from Schubert’s Lied “An den Mond”, D.296 (Matthias Goerne, Andreas Haefliger)

I searched literature, the Web (Wikipedia, Google, books): nowhere I could find even the slightest hint about this seemingly obvious connection. Is this just me? Hard to believe! To me, Schubert’s Song D.296 is one of the very nicest Lieder ever. Needless to say that I like these variations, even though I prefer Schubert’s original melody over Mendelssohn’s version!


To conclude: there may be newer, more polished, more virtuosic interpretations / recordings. I don’t really care, I like and really recommend Ilse von Alpenheim‘s recording. Many thanks to Oliver Schnyder for pointing me to these!

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