During the first half of the nineteenth century the cello sonata remained a relatively under-developed genre. Before Mendelssohn's two - and the sonata by Chopin - the only cello sonatas to have gained a secure place in the repertoire are Beethoven's five examples. Mendelssohn wrote several works for cello and piano, the most substantial being the two sonatas. The first of these dates from 1838, completed in October that year. At this time Mendelssohn had been married for eighteen months and was three years into his twelve-year term as Music Director of the prestigious Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, a position which in itself made him one of the most important musicians in Europe. He composed the B flat major Sonata for his younger brother Paul, who played the cello in his leisure time away from a career as a financier. Probably because it is a more modest and intimate work than the Second Sonata, it is relatively neglected. Schumann lavishly praised the sonata while remarking upon its ideal character for “the most cultivated family circle, perhaps best enjoyed after poetry readings from Goethe or Lord Byron”. The very substantial first movement has an abundance of material including strong themes perfectly suited to the cello, an instrument for which Mendelssohn always wrote superbly. The piano part is typically demanding, rippling triplets appearing quite soon and torrents of semiquaver passage-work subsequently. The intermezzo-like Andante in G minor has a songful middle section in G major in which Mendelssohn retains in the bass the rhythm of the opening bar. At the return of the first section the opening theme is presented in an entirely new way, the piano melody (now marked pianissimo) being accompanied by pizzicato cello while each of the left hand semiquavers has, curiously, its own delicate grace-note. Later another new, decorative accompaniment enhances the main melody. The finale's cantabile opening theme, in common with that of the first movement, includes the interval of a diminished fifth. As so often in Mendelssohn's chamber works, it is the piano part which is the more restless, generating urgent momentum with hyper-active, sometimes stormy passage-work in semiquavers (more than once marked con fuoco) and also initiating a strongly rhythmic episode marked assai animato. Each subsequent return of the main theme in this rondo-like structure is unobtrusive, beginning on the second beat, while the coda is equally subtle, the piano's rippling downward arpeggios dissolving into a quiet final cadence. The generally classical orientation of this sonata – as Schumann remarked, “more Mozartian … the purest absolute music” - may well have been influenced by the repertoire which Mendelssohn had been conducting in his Gewandhaus Orchestra concerts, including music by Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.
In her relatively short life of forty-one years Fanny Hensel (née Mendelssohn) composed between 450 and 500 works, some of which have begun to receive more attention in recent decades. Elder sister of Felix, born in Hamburg in 1805, she enjoyed a very close bond with him. Musically they were interactive and mutually supportive – in her own pieces she would sometimes allude to Felix's music, while he would often seek her advice on his current works. Like Felix, she composed pieces for their brother Paul, including the Fantasia in G minor (originally entitled “sonata or fantasia) and the Capriccio in A flat major, both for cello and piano and both completed in the autumn of 1829. The Fantasia begins with a substantial and affecting Andante doloroso in G minor which gives way to a faster section suggesting a sonata-form exposition. Here and in her actual sonatas Fanny was keen to show that her reputation should not depend upon her fluency as a miniaturist and salon composer. She had something more substantial to say and was well equipped technically to express it. The development section is interrupted by a smoothly prepared recall of the Andante and this attractive work ends with a coda in a new tempo. Because of this unorthodox, rather episodic form, one may understand the uncertainty of the original title “sonata or fantasia”. The Capriccio in A flat major comprises an Andante of Song-Without-Words character, followed by a stormy central Allegro di molto, then a return to the lyrical Andante. Fanny's death in 1847 left Mendelssohn, already beset by health problems, emotionally devastated, and his own death occurred only few months later.
Born in Sheffield in 1816, William Sterndale Bennett was admitted to the Royal Academy of Music at the age of ten. He became the most highly regarded English composer of the early Romantic period, though he is a very neglected figure today. His music was greatly admired by both Mendelssohn – who encouraged him to spend time in Leipzig “not as my pupil but as my friend” - and Schumann, with whom he enjoyed an even closer friendship. Bennett also earned a reputation as one of the finest pianists in Europe but on one visit to Leipzig (1836-7) he left a historic sporting legacy, arranging the first cricket match ever played in Germany. He despised the relative cultural poverty of his native country (“what a dreadful place England is for music”), but when offered the opportunity to become a prominent figure in German musical life he lacked the confidence to seize it. He taught at the Royal Academy for twenty years from 1837, a commitment which restricted his compositional output. Though he returned to composing in 1858 his later works were considered disappointingly old-fashioned. From 1866 until his death in 1875 he was Principal of the Royal Academy and he was knighted in 1871. The revival of some of Bennett's works in this centenary of his birth should remind us why he was so highly regarded in his day.
In common with the two Mendelssohn sonatas, Beethoven's five and many others, Bennett's Sonata Duo in A major Opus 32 (1852) is described on its cover as “for piano and cello”. However, the wording signifies merely a well-established tradition regarding the description of duo sonatas rather than any relative instrumental importance - just as Haydn continued to use “minuet” when the dance-form had been superseded by the scherzo. Dedicated to the cellist, teacher and composer Alfredo Piatti, the Sonata Duo begins with a lyrical introduction which leads to an Allegro giusto of Mendelssohnian delicacy (note the e leggierissimo in the tempo heading) and fluency. At first the piano sets the pace with a theme in 6/8 quavers. While the cello does enjoy its share of melodic material, it quite often plays a subsidiary role in longer notes. The more sustained second subject also brings contrasting breadth. Following a brief winding down (calando), Bennett finally recalls the music of the introduction. In the graceful Minuet caractéristique and finale Bennett further displays his melodic gift but also a perhaps even rarer quality – that of disarming simplicity, without banality. The A minor minuet has two alternating A major sections, the first a passage of rapid semiquavers (marked brillante) – for the piano, while the cello punctuates. In the rondo-finale the opening section, with its genial main theme, gives way to a more decisive episode marked risoluto. There is much exuberant and beautifully idiomatic piano-writing in Mendelssohnian style and again the cello sometimes adopts the supporting role in this true duo partnership. To round off this engaging but rarely played work Bennett returns to the music of the first movement Allegro, now in A major.
Mendelssohn's Opus 58 Sonata dates from 1842-3, a few years after the First Cello Sonata. Although Mendelssohn composed this D major work for his cellist-brother Paul, he dedicated it to Count Mateusz Wielhorski, who came from a very musical Polish-Russian family. The sonata begins with an irresistible élan reminiscent of the Italian Symphony's opening, its sheer energy carrying all before it. The overflowing exuberance of Mendelssohn's piano-writing contributes to the spirit of joie-de-vivre, especially in the build-up to the recapitulation – a structural point in sonata form where he quite often generates terrific momentum - and in the coda. The Allegretto scherzando is one of Mendelssohn's most perfect intermezzo-miniatures. Among its many delightful features are the use of pizzicato for some melodic material – unusually including rapid grace-notes - and a glorious second subject marked cantabile. There is also a beautifully judged lead-back to the opening material, preceded by a little teasing humour in the manner of Haydn. Much more surprising is the fortissimo passage in which the elfin is transformed into the monstrous, before a belated minor-key version of the second theme enhances the coda. The strikingly original slow movement begins with an extended passage of widely-spaced arpeggiated chords in the style of a chorale. A comparable example is the chorale-like melody from the finale of Mendelssohn's 2nd Piano Trio. In this sonata's Adagio the cello enters with a deeply expressive recitative and subsequently the two distinct elements, chorale and recitative, are combined. In the rapid finale, which follows attacca, Mendelssohn returns to the phenomenal energy of the opening movement without equalling it in substance or invention. The piano ripples away in the composer's most infectious manner, while the cello part also requires much brilliance.