Earlier this month Oehms Classics released a two-CD album of pianist Michael Endres performing all 48 of the short piano pieces that Felix Mendelssohn collected under the title Songs Without Words. These were published as eight separate “books,” each consisting of six compositions. Mendelssohn began work on the first book in 1829, and the last entry in the eighth book was completed in 1845. That means that he was probably twenty years old when he began this project, and the final volume was published about two years before his early death at the age of 38.
The author of the Wikipedia page for this collection suggests that the title was Mendelssohn’s own invention. However, (s)he also claims that Mendelssohn objected to at least one effort to put words to the melodic lines of at least some of these pieces. This raises the question of why he made it a point to call them songs in the first place for any reason other than being annoyingly prankish. One possibility is that he was struck by how much Franz Schubert could pack into even a relatively brief song that may even have had a strophic structure. As a result he chose to work on a similar scale of brevity, although his use of strophic structure frequently turned out to be more repetitive than almost anything Schubert would have tolerated.
Mendelssohn is often recognized for the facility with which he could invent and play out his thematic material. On the other hand, his approach to harmonic progression tends to be on the predictable side, no matter how much time he put into studying the many different ways in which Johann Sebastian Bach could set a single hymn tune. One result is that Mendelssohn’s facility is as likely to be viewed as a curse as it is a blessing.
The real issue, however, is how wedded a pianist is to the marks on the paper; and this may be a clue to Mendelssohn’s lexical choice. The worst thing a pianist can do with any of these 48 little pieces is take them at face value. The “meaning,” as it were, is in how any performer makes decisions pertaining to the expressive interpretation of those marks; and such decision-making is just as significant for any vocalist who chooses to perform a Schubert song. The difference, of course, is that, when singing Schubert, one needs to deal with expressiveness through the text as well as the music. Perhaps what Mendelssohn was seeking was a platform for expressive performance that would require considerable thought from the performer without any of that thought being diverted by mere words.
In this respect Endres’ approach to expressiveness is highly satisfying. He commands a broad repertoire of rhetorical techniques to engage as he finds just the right shading for each of his phrases. Much of this has to do with dynamic levels not only of the entire sonority but also at the level of individual voices in the counterpoint. (This is the Mendelssohn who clearly knew how to play Bach’s fugues.) However, equally powerful is the close attention that Endres pays to tempo and his capacity to create a feeling of suspense through even a subtle change of pace. Indeed, Endres’ capacity for expressiveness is so diverse and so well conceived that one might even go through both CDs in a single sitting without feeling that Mendelssohn was going on for too long!