Mendelssohn: Lieder ohne Worte

Mendelssohn: Lieder ohne Worte

Planned and recorded in a matter of days, Igor Levit’s album of 14 of Felix Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words for solo piano is his personal response to the October 7 attacks on Israeli Jews and to the rise of antisemitism across the world. Recording the album, the German Jewish pianist tells Apple Music Classical, was “purely a heart decision and, let’s put it this way, a bleeding-heart decision. I have a piano, and as a piano player, what can I do? I wanted to go into the studio and help people by playing beautiful music.” Mendelssohn composed his Songs Without Words at regular intervals throughout his life, eventually dividing the completed 48 pieces into eight books of six. “Some of them are superbly virtuosic,” says Levit, “very much outgoing, very confident, very witty, fast, and celebratory. But the pieces I recorded here were the ones I play these days—they’re more inward. The melancholy of the music, the melodies, the tone, the pure beauty of it, the joy, and the sadness—everything about it was so healing to me.” Levit points to the Song Op. 102 No. 1 in E Minor as perhaps encapsulating the album’s over-arching tone. “It’s so melancholic, it’s so lonely, and so expressive and sad. The sadness of it is just staggering. And yet it’s just tremendously beautiful. I love all of them, but this is the one which means just a little bit more to me than the others.” Before this, however, we encounter Op. 62 No. 3 in E Minor, “Funeral March,” whose repeated triplet and subsequent rising minor third was surely the inspiration for the opening “Funeral March” movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. For Levit, this earlier Song creates a mood that is “very brutally emotional and heartbreaking.” We finish in darkness, too, with Charles-Valentin Alkan’s Op. 31 Prelude “La chanson de la folle au bord de la mer” (“The song of the mad woman on the seashore”), a brooding, disquieting piece that serves as a coda to Levit’s program. “I’ve been playing this piece for many years, and Alkan is a composer I dearly, dearly love.” There was, says Levit, no plan to record the Alkan—the decision to include it was made in the studio. “Literally three hours before the end of the session, I saw how this whole thing could come together. The Alkan, I realized, is also a song without words. It’s incredibly intense. It’s dark and it’s sad. And so, it’s somehow a great ending to the album.”

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