Mendelssohn's Capriccio Brillant, Op. 22


performed on August 20, 2019 at Staunton Music Festival

Trinity Episcopal Church, Staunton, Virginia

Regier piano (after Graf 1830) kindly loaned by Mr. Vernon McCart



solo piano: Andrew Willis; flutes: Mary Boodell, Immanuel Davis;  oboes: Margaret Owens, Alek Fester; 

clarinets: Nina Stern, Ed Matthew; bassoons: Keith Collins, Stephanie Corwin; horns: Todd Williams, Ian Zook; 

trumpets: Kris Kwapis, Bruno Lourensetto; timpani: Brian David Smith

violin: Minna Pensola (concertmaster), Martin Davids, Jacob Ashworth, Nicholas DiEugenio, Natalie Kress, Fiona Hughes

viola: Kyle Miller, Kathleen Overfield-Zook; cello: Michael Unterman, Carl Donakowski; double bass: Erik Higgins


Video by Stewart Searle





About the Instruments

Hearing music from earlier eras on instruments for which it was written can be a powerful experience. Staunton Music Festival takes great pride in presenting works from before 1850 on historically original instruments or replicas. Some concerts focus on music for early keyboards—instruments that were the foundation of music making in the centuries before the modern piano, with its massive structure of steel and wood, came to dominate concert halls and homes in the late 19th century. Here we can delight in the more intimate sounds of a fortepianos, replica of the kind that would have been played by Schubert and Mendelssohn themselves. The fortepiano used in this performance, made by R. J. Regier in 2004, is based on an 1830 Graf at the Smithsonian. Ideally suited for Schubert, Schumann, and Chopin, this keyboard has a compass 6 ½ octaves (CC-g’’’’) and the bone naturals/ ebony sharps familiar from modern pianos. Its case is American black walnut and it includes four foot pedals for expressive effects and sustain.


About the Music

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) came of age within upper middle class surroundings in Hamburg and Berlin.  The boy’s musical abilities were noted early but not overly stressed—perhaps the contrary example of Leopold Mozart came to mind.  However, once Felix’s talents began translating into earnest and viable compositional outlets, he was placed under the care of Carl Zelter in 1817.  Zelter was steeped in “old-school” counterpoint; his influence on a boy not quite nine years old must have been profound.  Mendelssohn’s skill in updating Baroque counterpoint to a 19th-century approach toward harmony and large-scale form was due in part to the rigorous training handed down by Zelter.  The teacher also introduced 12-year-old Mendelssohn to the aging Goethe.  Young Felix dazzled the venerable poet with his technical and artistic ability, kindling a special fondness that bridged the generations.  From such auspicious beginnings, Mendelssohn’s future success seemed assured, and he began to expand his circle (as was the routine for similar young men) with a grand tour of Europe.  This period gave birth to many of his most beloved works, including the “Scottish” and “Italian” Symphonies.  In addition, it was a time for widespread concertizing during which Mendelssohn would delight audiences with performances of original works. 


Evidence suggests that the stand-alone Capriccio Brilliant was originally conceived as the opening movement of a three-movement piano concerto.  Despite the title’s nod to fantasy and caprice, this movement nevertheless projects the best conventional features of the concerto genre: a thematic give-and-take between soloist and orchestra, as well as ample moments for the soloist to delight in virtuosity and tonal misdirection.  By the time Mendelssohn completed this Capriccio Brilliant in 1826, he had already completed at least five concertos, though none had yet been published.  Thus, when his first “official” Piano Concerto No. 1 appeared in 1831, Mendelssohn was already—at age 22—an old hand with the form.


Dominated by the “brilliant” designation, this work sparkles with stunning, virtuosic passagework.  Much here will remind listeners of Mendelssohn’s other piano concertos.  The “capriccio” element, signifying a degree of formal license, puts its stamp over the first eight-measure period.  After this tender piano solo in B major, other players gradually enter the scene, and the shift into B minor casts a shadow of intrigue.  The opening paragraph fades away over an unresolved diminished-7th harmony.  Clearly intent on building up anticipation, Mendelssohn slides into a second, faster and more agitated introduction before arriving at the main theme: a brilliant, fleet-footed romp across the keyboard.  The theme continues without pause until the arrival of the conventional second theme, which contrasts against the first in both tonality (B minor vs. D major) and topical style (scherzo vs. march).  And while the ensemble valiantly strives to sustain the march rhythm, the solo piano veers off into a dazzling series of arpeggios, scale runs, and bravura octaves.  Such moments are part and parcel of works written as concert vehicles for Mendelssohn himself to use in recitals across Europe in the 1820s and 1830s. 


© Jason Stell, 2019




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