Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy - Variations sérieuses Opus 54

Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy
Variations sérieuses Opus 54

Paul Badura-Skoda
Piano Bösendorfer Imperial

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Felix Mendelssohn - Bartholdy, Variations sérieuses Opus 54

The title is an understatement. These variations are not only "serious", they are tragic : a suffering man lays his soul bare. This is not the happy [latin felix] Mendelssohn we know from other works, but a man who has suffered setbacks and disillusions. Yet he rarely puts his deeper emotions in words, he rather expresses them in music, too eloquent for words as he once stated in a letter. The theme itself bears witness to his state of mind : Its sighs and chromaticisms remind us of Bach’s Weinen, Klagen... (Crying and Lamenting Cantata BWV 12), and it is perhaps not by coincidence that the agitated, tormented final presto quotes a motif (Blute nur, du liebes Herz) from the Saint Matthew Passion, which Mendelssohn had resurrected from its oblivion in 1829, hundred years after its first performance.

This work owes its greatness perhaps from the fact that until then Mendelssohn had avoided the variation form in his piano music. On July 15, 1841 he wrote to his friend Karl Klingemann : "Do you know what I am composing now ? A set of variations for piano, eighteen in one stroke on a theme in D minor : and this gives me divine pleasure… it seems that I have to make up for the fact that I had not written any before."
In its final shape, after many corrections and revisions the work contains only 17 variations. However, the 17th extended variation includes in fact another one with a dramatic "drumroll". The sketches (Deutsche Staatsbibliothek, Berlin) show that this monumental work was conceived, as it were, in reverse gear, backward from the Finale.

One cannot but admire the diversity of moods and the wealth of pianistic invention. As in the case of great variation cycles by other composers, certain variations are conceived as groups of two or three. Thus the first two variations maintain the melody of the theme and lead to a culmination in the third "brahmsian" variation. The fifth and even more so the eleventh evoke the "romantic" idiom of Mendelssohn’s admirer Schumann, while the eighth and ninth form a pair incorporating the idea of the "spinning song" to which Schubert had created an immortal model in his Lied "Gretchen am Spinnrad". Variation nr. 10 is a perfectly shaped fugato while the fourteenth variation, the only one in a major key, evokes the religious atmosphere of finding consolation in prayer. Of particular interest are the highly original thirteenth and fourteenth variations. The latter one which puts the theme as a cantus firmus in the middle part ("tenor") would have given honour to César Franck, while the preceding 13th variation with its percussive repeated chords is indeed a premonition of 20th century composers like Bartók and Prokofiev. The passionate Coda contains some of the most brilliant passages Mendelssohn ever wrote. As mentioned above a Bach motif is quoted nearly literally in the measures 290 to 293.

The genesis of the Variations sérieuses is known : the Viennese publisher Pietro Mechetti asked the most renowned composers of this time to write original piano works as a contribution to a collected edition the net profit of which should help to finance a Beethoven monument in Bonn. Due to Mechetti’s insistence, Mendelssohn who had first refused to cooperate, finally consented to contribute his share. Mendelssohn started his work on June 4, 1841. He gave the first public performance on occasion of his last appearance at the Gewandhaus concerts in Leipzig on November 27, 1841. He probably choose the byword "sérieuses" in order to distinguish his composition from the superficial "Variations brillantes" of some of his contemporaries. The other contributors to this volume were Chopin, Czerny, Döhler, Henselt, Kalkbrenner, Liszt, Moscheles, Taubert and Thalberg. It is noteworthy that in the title he was printed with his full double name Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. Why is his second name dropped today?

Paul Badura -Skoda


Paul Badura-Skoda


Originally he wanted to become an engineer but luckily he changed his mind. Nowadays, he is applauded in all the world's great concert halls, from Carnegie Hall in New York to the Golden Hall of the Musikverein in Vienna. He makes extensive concert tours on all continents, plays with leading orchestras and can be found in the recording studios of the celebrated record companies. In either words, Paul Badura-Skoda is one of the most important pianists of our time.

One thing has remained with him from his early professional interests, the desire to "look behind the scenes", to understand the functioning and the impact of great musical works and, in playing them, to make the perception accessible to others. In this critical appraisal first editions and autographs are compared, the text deviations investigated and historical instruments are used. Not only does he play music, he also reflects on it, producing numerous cadenzas to Mozart concerti and style-sensitive completions of unfinished works by Mozart and Schubert. The musical personality of Badura-Skoda is characterized by complete immersion in music, a passionate search for the essential and a sense of artistic responsibility, but not in a technical or academical sense. "Paul Badura-Skoda makes us feel something which is rare in a professional musician, that he loves music with every part of his being", a critic once said.

Paul Badura-Skoda was born in Vienna in 1927. His unusual musical talent very soon became to the fore and was appropriately encouraged. Unforgettable concert performances by Edwin Fischer, Hans Knappertsbusch and Wilhelm Furtwängler during the war strengthened Badura-Skoda's intention to become a musician. The young artist was not only impressed by the remarkable interpretations he heard but more so by the evidence of the ethical power of music they provided, an aspect that he still emphasizes today.

In 1945 Badura-Skoda entered the Vienna Conservatory. Only two years later he attracted attention when he won the first prize of the Austrian Music Competition. A scholarship for Edwin Fischer's master classes in Lucerne was the prize, and also the starting point of the maestro's friendship, which laid the foundation for Badura-Skoda's artistic future. A few years later the young pianist became Fischer's assistant, and after Fischer's death, he continued the tradition of his master classes in Vienna, Salzburg, Edinburgh and Siena. Even today, Badura-Skoda still keeps close contact with young artists. Again and again he devotes precious time and enthusiasm to the strenuous office of jury member in important piano contests and advises young artists. No-one who has heard him speak about music with warmth and perception in his soft Viennese voice, can ever forget it.

In 1949 Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan became aware of Badura-Skoda's outstanding talent. They invited him to play concerts, and practically overnight the young Viennese pianist became a world-famous artist. He made a spectacular debut at the Salzburg Festival; and at his first concert in New York, in 1953, the hall was quickly sold out, something that hardly anyone before him had experienced. This sensational success was repeated a few years later at his debut in Tokyo. Record companies were not far behind, for years he was the pianist who had the largest number of long-playing records on the market.

Since then, Badura-Skoda has become a regular and celebrated guest at the most important music festivals. The conductors Wilhelm Furtwängler, Joseph Krips, Karl Böhm, Hans Knappertsbusch, Hermann Scherchen, Artur Rodzinsky, Lorin Maazel, Georg Szell, Sir Charles Mackerras, Sir Georg Solti and the violinist David Oistrakh have been among his famous partners. He has recorded a vast repertoire, more than two hundred long-playing records and dozens of compact discs appeared, including complete cycles of the piano sonatas of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert.

But Badura-Skoda does not limit himself to play the works of the classical Viennese composers, his repertory ranges from baroque to modern music. Indeed, Badura-Skoda does not agree with narrow specialization. He conducts, composes, works in musicological areas, writes books on music and collects. Besides a huge archive of autograph microfilm copies and first editions, he is the proud owner of an extensive collection of historical keyboard instruments. It is a unique experience to be shown around this treasury by the owner himself.

1976 the Austrian State honoured Paul Badura-Skoda by the "Österreichische Ehrenkreuz für Wissenschaft und Kunst", 1978 Badura-Skoda received the "Bösendorfer-Ring" which was given only to Wilhelm Backhaus before, 1988 he received the Gold Medal of the City of Vienna, 1993 the artist was nominated "Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur" and 1997 "Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres". At the occasion of his 80th birthday Paul Badura-Skoda was honoured by the Austrian Government receiving the Große Silberne Ehrenzeichen für Verdienste um die Republik Österreich and by the City of Vienna he received the Goldene Ehrenzeichen für Verdienste um das Land Wien. The University of Mannheim in Germany honoured him by the title Doctor Honoris Causa.

Bösendorfer Imperial Concert Grand



Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy

Variations sérieuses Opus 54

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