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Riko Fukuda - Mendelssohn -

04 August 2009
5 Stars

Piano music was a mainstay of Mendelssohn's output from childhood onwards, although in this anniversary year, record companies have paid relatively little attention to it. There are even fewer recitals recorded on pianos built by Mendelssohn's contempories, so this one from fortepianist Riko Fukuda is most welcome. After studying oboe and piano in a Japanese conservatory, she left to study in The Netherlands under Stanley Hoogland at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague. Specialising in the fortepiano, she founded the Nepomuk Fortepiano Quintet with which she has made several recordings.

For her Mendelssohn recital, she has chosen pianos from the Edwin Beunk Collection in the Netherlands; a Graf of 1835 and an Erard of 1837, which have been lovingly restored, well-prepared, tuned and voiced. The Graf has transparency of tone and good attack which makes for precise articulation and is excellent for contrapuntal music, while the Erard has a rich singing tone and a more dramatic range of tone colours. Both instruments show the wooden-framed fortepiano characteristic of varied and almost orchestral tone colours throughout their ranges, compared with the relative tonal uniformity of modern pianos.

Fukuda's programme avoids opts for works which mostly pose varied interpretative challenges rather than those focussing mainly on technical display. The MS of the Fantasia in F sharp minor Op. 28 was completed in 1833, but letters from Mendelssohn to his sister Fanny suggest that it was mainly composed in 1828 and then entitled 'Sonate écossaise' (although his Scottish visit did not take place until the following year). In 1830, after his return, he played the Fantasia to Goethe in Weimar before making the final MS corrections. It is in three movements performed without a break, in form (but not content) similar to Beethoven's Sonata quasi una fantasia, Op. 27, No. 2 ("Moonlight" Sonata). Fukuda exploits the dark lower register of the Graf fortepiano to the full in the opening silky, flowing arpeggios of the piece, and its mid-range with rich overtones in the agitated main theme. She gives a compelling reading of the Fantasia, making the most of its dramatic and often dissonant climaxes in the turbulent outer movements, and adding a wry humour and Schumanesque touch to its central scherzo.

She continues with the Graf for the 'Seven Characteristic Pieces' Op.7, which may have been written as early as 1825 (Mendelssohn's 16th year) and was dedicated to his piano teacher. These are exploratory works, the young composer experimenting with texture and form but at the same time paying homage to his heroes, JS Bach and Domenico Scarlatti. The transparency of the Graf graces the academic counterpoint of the pieces in Baroque style with a remarkable internal clarity, and Fukuda revels in the piano's rich sonorities as the fugal climaxes and final voice entries pile up and she brings them home to a noble conclusion. She plays all the repeats in the shorter, more Romantic pieces, including a tender and evocative 'Sehnsüchtig' (Yearning) in No. 6 where she is perhaps a little heavy in phrasing. She redeems herself, however, in No. 7 which is an early manifestation of the classic Mendelssohn "fairy" scherzo. Her playing positively sparkles in this mercurial study of light detached and staccato notation, taking us in imagination through the composer's favourite elfin glades.

Next on the track list (Track 11) is 'Variations sérieuses' in D min, Op. 54 (1841), one of Mendelssohn's personal favourite recital pieces. However, on this hybrid disc, this is only available as a "bonus" on the CD layer, which is a great pity, as it is one of Fukuda's most impressive interpretations. She uses the Erard, which really shows its splendid character when given full rein with such a virtuoso work, and it is a shame that it was not possible to include it in the SACD layer.

Returning to the SACD programme, the recital concludes with 'Six Songs without Words' Op. 67 (1845). Sophisticated salon music they may be, but the growing middle class piano-playing market snapped up volumes of these as fast as Mendelssohn could write them. The miniatures are full of poetry and micro-drama, and did much to fuel the progress of the Romantic movement in domestic settings. Fukuda's Erard displays its singing tones gladly under her touch, and she plays her 'songs' affectionately and effectively, although at times not quite attaining Barenboim's deeper probing and more emotionally nuanced readings in his classic complete RBCD set. In Op. 67 No.1, for example, she is bright-eyed and rather melodramatic where Barenboim prefers a touchingly wistful and coyly hesitant characterisation. Her 'Spinning Song' (Op. 67 No.4) gets off to a rather sluggish start compared to Barenboim's full-speed spin, but picks up momentum towards the end, which she manages brilliantly. In these pieces, the lovely almost vocal colours on different registers of Fukada's Erard glow, particularly in her inner voicing, and this tonal allure adds much to her interpretations.

In recording terms, the sound of both fortepianos is strikingly realistic, the piano being placed at an ideal distance so that mechanical noises never intrude, and a subtly resonant and sympathetic acoustic allows the tone to fully develop in their tonal and dynamic ranges. Stereo SACD balance is excellent, while the 5.0 Multi-channel adds the subtle but effective three-dimensional touch of realism that can make so much difference to enjoyment of chamber music.

This is a desirable Mendelssohn disc, with Fukuda showing her affinity for period instruments and making one want to hear more from her. If you have doubts about clattery or wobbly sounding old pianos, this recording could be the one which convinces you otherwise.

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