Mendelssohn: The Piano Trios & Works For Cello & Piano
Champs Hill Records adds to its Mendelssohn discography with a new release of Piano Trios from the acclaimed Gould Piano Trio: violinist Lucy Gould, cellist Alice Neary and pianist Benjamin Frith.
The album includes a priceless cello miniature in the form of the Song without Words in D major Op.109 and the charming Albumblatt for piano in E minor Op.117.
The Gould Piano Trio's Mendelssohn pedigree is extremely fine. From studies in Banff as a young ensemble with the great Menahem Pressler through many performances, and a previous recording of the trios over a decade ago, they bring the perspective of a longer acquaintance with this wonderful music. They were recently compared to the Beaux Arts Trio by the Washington Post for their "musical fire" and dedication to the genre.
Mendelssohn's Piano Trio No 1 in D minor received its first performance in Leipzig in February 1840, with the composer at the piano, and the string parts played by the Gewandhaus Orchestra's leader, Ferdinand David, and its principal cellist, Franz Carl Wittmann. Robert Schumann's review of the published score declared the work to be the 'master trio of today' and is universally recognised as one of his greatest works, along with his Octet.
The Piano Trio No 2 in C minor, composed and published four years later, was dedicated to the violinist Louis Spohr takes the melody of a German chorale, also known in English as 'Old Hundredth' for its association with the 100th Psalm. The 'Variations Concertantes' for violin and cello were written when the composer was 20 - a simple homespun melody put through a series of classical variations, culminating in a full-blown romantic finale. Benjamin Frith writes: "Mendelssohn's cultural inheritance was the great Classical repertoire that he imbibed as a child. In the two masterly Piano Trios and his Variations concertantes he adapts those former principals of structure and form to his own inimitable musical personality".
- Sleeve Notes
During the eighteenth century, Leipzig became known as 'little Paris' for the bustle of its commerce and openness to new ideas. The civic authorities installed street lighting and modernised the public water supply in the early 1700s; they also encouraged an extensive building programme that led in turn to an increase in population and prosperity. Leipzig's concert life flourished in line with the rapid growth of the city's middle classes, notably so following the opening of the Gewandhaus concert hall in 1781. The buoyant local market for music supported the creation of ambitious new choral societies in the early 1800s and guaranteed loyal subscribers to their Gewandhaus concerts. Performances of the latest symphonic and chamber works appealed to the city's musical connoisseurs, as did the revival of compositions by Bach, Handel, Haydn and Mozart. By the time Felix Mendelssohn was appointed director of instrumental and vocal music at the Gewandhaus in 1835, Leipzig was second only to Berlin among German cities in the diversity and breadth of its music-making and arguably unrivalled in terms of the quality of its professional musicians.
Mendelssohn's Leipzig audience comprised members of the old nobility and the new bourgeoisie. While his private concerts attracted an elite company of scholars, fellow composers, foreign dignitaries, artists, writers and opinion- formers, his public programmes appealed to a wider segment of civic society. The composer complained, however, that his high ideals for 'serious' music were not shared by a general public that wished more to be entertained than spiritually uplifted by the art-form. He used his Gewandhaus position to shape public taste, introducing concert programmes that often mixed the old blend of short orchestral pieces and opera arias in one half with a few substantial works, crowned by a symphony, in the second. Mendelssohn also cultivated interest in chamber music at the Gewandhaus. His Piano Trio in D minor received its first performance there on 1 February 1840, with the composer at the piano, and the string parts played by the Gewandhaus Orchestra's leader, Ferdinand David, and its principal cellist, Franz Carl Wittmann.
Robert Schumann's review of the published score declared the work to be the 'master trio of today, as in their day were those of Beethoven in B flat and D, as was that of Schubert in E flat.' Gottfried Wilhelm Fink, writing in the influential Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, recalled the 'extraordinary impression that this new trio has made at its pubic performance as well as in private circles.' He went on to praise the work's 'sustained interweaving of themes and ... sure mastery of form' and noted that it also 'has as much as anyone could desire of lively excitement, fresh drive, joyful brilliance'. The D minor Piano Trio's favourable early reception with critics and audiences gained momentum following Schumann's declaration that it confirmed Mendelssohn's position as 'the Mozart of the nineteenth century; the most brilliant among musicians; the one who has most clearly recognised the contradictions of the times, and [is] the first to reconcile them.' It is not quite clear what 'contradictions' Schumann had in mind; they surely arose, however, from the aesthetic debate about the relative values of formal technique and integrity in musical composition on one side and free invention and virtuosity on the other, a battle in the ongoing war between Classicism and Romanticism.
During his development from remarkable child prodigy to artistic maturity, Mendelssohn produced almost every form of instrumental music bar the piano trio. A youthful work for piano, violin and viola, from 1820, contains sections that sound like the makings of a piano concerto. He first considered exploring the genre proper, for violin, piano and cello, in the early 1830s: 'I should like to compose a couple of good trios,' he wrote to his sister Fanny in 1832. He revisited the idea six years later in a letter to his friend Ferdinand Hiller, declaring that he intended 'to write a pair of trios soon'. Mendelssohn finally began work on his first piano trio in February 1839, sketching material that he took with him on a summer visit to Frankfurt, his wife's home town. He drafted a complete version of the score in June and July and made significant revisions that autumn in response to Hiller's observations that 'Certain pianoforte passages ... seemed to me ' to speak candidly ' somewhat old-fashioned.' Hiller suggested that Mendelssohn should embrace the 'richness of passages which marked the new piano school' of Chopin and Liszt, and eventually persuaded the composer to make changes, chiefly to the piano trio's first movement. The sprightly piano figurations in the emended Molto allegro agitato and in the work's intense finale helped create a synthesis of modern virtuoso techniques and classical approaches to melodic development and form.
The Piano Trio in D minor plays with tradition. Mendelssohn presents the substantial first movement's two main themes on cello, establishing the instrument's place as equal partner rather than subservient supporter of its two companions. His choice of modulations are also innovative: the sonata form movement does little more than touch on its relative major key, F major, introducing light into the prevailing minor-key shade with ingenious shifts to more remote major keys in the central development section. The cello's recapitulation of the main theme is graced by a violin countermelody and a brief piano cadenza, the latter responsible for subverting the symmetry of the theme's original statement.
Romantic sensibilities are served in the Andante con moto tranquillo. The movement in B-flat major, cast in A-B-A form, opens with a glorious 'song without words' for solo piano that unfolds in dialogue with a duet for violin and cello. Mendelssohn awakens more turbulent emotions in the central section, stirred by triplet chords in the piano and a yearning minor-key theme, which fade in intensity before the initial section's heartfelt return. The work's light and vivacious D major scherzo, a rondo in all but name, was no doubt conceived to remind its first audience of Mendelssohn's celebrated virtuosity at the keyboard. The movement's dancing 6/8 rhythms and syncopations call for sprightly finger work and clearly focused staccato articulations, both suited to the composer's famously refined pianism. Rondo form returns in the trio's meaty finale. The A- B-A-C-A-B-C-A structure's repetitions and contrasts offer Mendelssohn scope to revisit material presented earlier in the composition: he matches the finale's reflective opening, for example, to the pianissimo close of the preceding movement, retaining the scherzo's forward momentum and flowing semiquavers as essential ingredients of the fourth movement's agitated opening. The insistent rhythmic motif present in the finale's main theme (and recalled again in its B section) also derives from the scherzo; the flowing C section, meanwhile, echoes melodic material from the slow movement. Mendelssohn recalls the disparate emotional states of his work's first three movements, exploring each within the fresh context of its finale before raising spirits with a triumphant D major conclusion.
Almost six years passed before Mendelssohn realised his ambition to create 'a pair of trios'. The second of his piano trios, published in 1846 with a dedication to the composer and violinist Louis Spohr, shares many common features with its predecessor. The composer created the piece in the early months of 1845 during an extended period of retreat from his duties as a performer and administrator. He had recently concluded a disappointing engagement as general music director to the Prussian court, where King Friedrich Wilhelm IV's ambitious plans to reform Berlin's musical institutions had been hobbled by local resistance to change. Mendelssohn vowed 'never again to stay' in Berlin. He took refuge with his family in Frankfurt at the end of 1844 and returned to composition soon after, unleashing a flood of new works, the Six Organ Sonatas Op.65 among them, and compiling his final volume of Lieder ohne Worte Op.67. The Piano Trio in C minor, completed on 30 April 1845, opens with a tense ascending theme presented by the piano above a sustained 'pedal' note in the cello. The sonata-form movement's dramatic focus is intensified throughout by Mendelssohn's inventive use of material derived from the main theme: the exposition, for example, comprises three subject groups, the second of which, in E flat major, is supported by an accompaniment based on the main theme; the movement's concluding coda, meanwhile, combines the main theme in its original state with a version played in augmented crotchets by violin and viola.
The Andante espressivo presents another 'song without words', tender in nature and sublime in its contrasts of texture and timbre. The movement's character is set by a cradle song in E flat major for solo piano and subsequent accompanied duet for violin and viola. Mendelssohn draws the ear to frequent repetitions of the opening melody's first four notes, creating a sense of unity that connects the contrasting central section, cast in E flat minor, to the rest of the movement. The breathless scherzo bristles with restless energy, underpinned by a taut formal structure of insistent rondo repetitions, subtle thematic transformations and strategically placed contrasts between minor and major modes. Traces of the so-called Hungarian gypsy style, or style hongrois, surface strongly in the scherzo's central section and are present until the movement, which Mendelssohn described as 'a trifle nasty to play', melts away. An upward leap, spanning the interval of a ninth, launches the finale. The movement's jaunty main theme gives way to serious matters, announced by the piano's hymn tune (complete with an initial allusion to the Lutheran chorale, Gelobet seist Du, Jesu Christ), reinforced by the near-symphonic scope of its subsequent development, and almost overloaded with piano tremolandos and stopped strings at its final C major return. The work draws to a gracious close with a coda in which Mendelssohn weaves together the finale's main theme and chorale melody.
Mendelssohn's younger brother Paul was an outstanding amateur cellist. His considerable musical and technical competence can be measured by the high demands Felix set for him in the Andante con variazioni of January 1829, published the following year as the Variations concertantes Op.17. The work rests on an elegant, song-like theme in D major, which remains clearly present within the course of its first six variations. Mendelssohn rocks the expressive boat in Variation VII with an abrupt lurch into D minor and a wild outburst of piano octaves. The dependable main theme returns in the final variation before being freely modified and extended in a coda that fades to a gentle conclusion.
In August 1845 Mendelssohn returned to Leipzig from Frankfurt and launched the Gewandhaus orchestral season soon after with a concert of works by Weber, Clara Schumann and Beethoven. He contributed a new composition to the season's first chamber music evening on 18 October, accompanying the ill-fated young French cellist Lisa Cristiani in his Lied ohne Worte in D major, published posthumously as Op.109. The work's quality of invention and engaging emotional balance compare with the finest of Mendelssohn's 'songs without words' for piano. The Albumblatt Op.107 (literally 'album leaf'), another posthumous publication, began life in the summer of 1836. It was written for Friedrich Wilhelm Benecke, a fellow childhood refugee from Hamburg who made his mark as an entrepreneur in England and was father-in-law to the composer's eldest daughter, Marie. The piano piece, an Allegro in E minor, conjures up nocturnal images with its flowing triplet arpeggios and yearning principal melody. Mendelssohn, as so often in his compositions, effects spiritual transformation in the hymn-like central section; its lyrical music in E major prepares listeners to receive the restatement of the work's wistful main theme with fresh ears.
- Press Reviews
"The Goulds have a generous, warm-hued view, finding a rich, golden sound with no want of fire or gossamer lightness when required."
- Classical Music
"I love the way the Gould Trio... search out all the expressive details of harmony and melody, giving the piece its own unique character."
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