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Centaur CRC 2925
Recorded on November 12, 13 & 14, 2007
Centaur Records

Mendelssohn Piano Trio

Ya-Ting Chang, piano
Peter Sirotin, violin
Fiona Thompson, cello

Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809-1947)

Piano Trio in D Minor, Op. 49, No.1

    I.   Molto allegro agitato
    II.  Andante con moto tranquillo
    III. Scherzo - Leggiero e vivace
    IV. Finale - Allegro assai appassionato
Piano Trio in C Minor, Op. 66, No. 2

    I.   Allegro energico e con fuoco
    II.  Andante espressivo
    III. Scherzo - Molto allegro - quasi presto
    IV. Finale - ALlegro appassionato


Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (b. Hamburg, 3 February 1809; d. Leipzig, 4 November 1847) was one of the most gifted and versatile prodigies of his age. He stood at the forefront of German music during the 1830s and 1840s, as conductor, pianist, organist, and, above all, composer. His musical style, fully developed before he was twenty, drew upon a variety of influences, including the complex counterpoint of Bach, the formal clarity and gracefulness of Mozart, and the dramatic power of Beethoven and von Weber. Mendelssohn's emergence into the first rank of 19th-century German composers coincided with efforts by musical historiographers to develop the concept of a Classic-Romantic didactic in 18th and 19th-century music. To a large degree, his music reflects a fundamental tension between Classicism and Romanticism in the generation of German composers after Beethoven, a tension that was also not foreign to such impressive figures as Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms.

Mendelssohn came from an upper middle-class family. And while this meant that Felix never had to really "work" for a living, he nevertheless drove himself to an early grave in an attempt to fulfill all of his many assumed musical responsibilities. It is said that he made the profession of music "respectable." He was by all accounts a remarkable person, possessing considerable talents both as an artist and as a writer. Languages came easily to him. His administrative and organizing talents were also considerable. He helped promote his contemporaries, among them Schumann, Chopin and Berlioz. It is also to Mendelssohn that we owe the modern approach to performing the works of Bach and Handel. He was also one of the great pianists of his day. Clarity, nuance, lack of mannerism, and fidelity to the score marked his playing. Mendelssohn also kept the keyboard works of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven alive when they were eclipsed, much to his disgust, by those of Field, Hummel, and Kalkbrenner.

Mendelssohn wrote two trios for piano and strings. Although seven years passed between the composition of the first and second trio, they usually appear today on the same program. Hence they may be regarded as compositions written as a pair-just as Brahms composed several paired works for the same combination of instruments. And it is also natural that the first of the pair may be regarded as more spontaneous, the second more weighty and worked out.

Of all Mendelssohn's chamber compositions, the Trio has become the most popular. The first movement, Molto allegro ed agitato, is in sonata form and features two clearly defined, broad themes, both given to the cello. The main theme, a broad elegiac melody with a long arch, is reminiscent of the long melodies of Brahms. The second theme in A major features a fine development section. Its scoring is extremely brilliant. These two themes seem to be both similar and contrasting. In the recapitulation, the violin introduces a charming counterpoint to the main theme. In a recent biography of the composer, R. Larry Todd concludes: "If a Mozartean grace suffuses the whole, there are nevertheless signs that mark the work as modern and romantic."

The second movement, Andante, begins as a gentle Lied ohne Worte [song without words] for solo piano, answered by a duet for violin and cello. The contrasting middle section, in the parallel minor, introduces a new theme and accompaniment in more insistent triplet chords. In the return of the opening melody, the piano pauses long enough to allow violin and cello to execute two "vocal" cadenzas. Then the strings take up the accompaniment and leave the piano to draw this enchanting movement to its murmuring close.

The third and fourth movements employ similar rondo designs. The puckish Scherzo: Leggiero e vivace is short, but extremely demanding of all the players. Set in the key of D major, the impish seven-bar introductory figure divides into three plus four, injecting an element of playful whimsy that takes us into the fairy world of the Midsummer Night's Dream. Mendelssohn frequently returned to that imaginary world for his finest effects.

The Finale has the tempo marking Allegro assai appassionato. But it is the opening movement that is really more passionate in nature. This movement is based on a dance theme, twice interrupted by a yearning melody. One critic, Egon Kenton, described this as "a brilliant movement" but felt that "the dance theme is perhaps somewhat overstated." Another Mendelssohn biographer, Philip Radcliff, complained that the piano part "is over-brilliant, and the rhythm of the first theme, though impressive at first, is afterwards worked with a rather excessive persistence." But it was for yet a third Mendelssohn biographer, R. Larry Todd, to declare that the finale's main function is to summarize the whole composition. The result, he claims, "is a masterful trio with subtle relationships between the movements, and a psychological curve that incorporates the agitated brooding of the first, [the] subdued introspection of the second and the playful frivolity of the third. The finale combines all three modes, before reconciling them in the celebratory D-major ending."

In the years between the publication of his first piano trio (Op. 49) and the genesis of the second trio, Mendelssohn pursued a variety of projects. He continued his work at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, where he had been directing the orchestra since 1835, and founded a music school. In addition, he memorialized his love for Bach by placing a statue of the composer in front of the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, where Bach had spent the last seventeen years of his life. The Piano Trio No. 2 in C minor, Op. 66 was composed in 1845. It was dedicated to the violinist and composer, Ludwig Spohr, who is known to have joined Mendelssohn in performances of the work. The first movement, Allegro energico e con fuoco, is built upon an opening ascending and descending arpeggio, perhaps reminiscent of the composer's Hebrides Overture. The piano introduces a restless, urgent principal theme in C minor, a flowing eighth-note figure that rises and falls in each measure, emphasizing the dark harmony of that key. A lyrical second motif of the opening theme features an impassioned melody in E-flat major for strings in the same arch shape, as the piano scampers up and down the keyboard in sixteenth-note runs. The second subject is soothing in character, somewhat related to the second motif of the first theme, and almost as restless. Of particular note is the way that Mendelssohn gradually reintroduces the opening motive at the end of the development. In the coda, the piano presents its theme at original speed, while the strings play the same material half as fast, creating enormous tension.

A restless passion pervades the Andante espressivo in E-flat major, although it is calmer, and heartfelt, rather than dark and questioning. The piano introduces a rocking, lullaby-like melody suggestive of a choral part-song. Soon the violin and cello enter and, against a piano background, transform the music into a sentimental "duet without words." A middle section introduces a mood of nostalgia, but then the opening melody returns in the strings with florid piano accompaniment, creating a peak of emotion which then subsides peacefully.

The Scherzo: Molto allegro quasi presto starts ominously with violin, cello, and piano all entering in quick succession and chasing each other through several phrases. The piano takes over with a friendlier scampering melody, easing only slightly in the middle of the movement for a more jovial theme. When the lightning pace resumes, the original racing music alternates with flashes of the jovial theme before the music suddenly evaporates into thin air.

The Finale: Allegro appassionato is again in the tragic key of C minor and starts with a leap of a ninth in the cello. This dissonance embodies the irrepressible spirit of the music. A second theme, somewhat more soothing, is soon abandoned to return to the agitated first bars. But this theme is suddenly broken off, as a solemn chorale in A-flat alludes to Bach's well-known chorale theme, Vor Deinen Thron [Before Your Throne], a song of death whose melody comes from the Geneva Psalter of 1551. In the coda the chorale merges with the principal theme and is elevated to hymn-like splendor. This device also appealed to Johannes Brahms, who used a similar technique in the finale of his Piano Quartet, Op. 60, also in C minor (1875). R Larry Todd finds in that Brahms finale an allusion to the first movement of this Mendelssohn piano trio. Critic Eric Werner goes so far as to suggest that this movement fairly cries out for large orchestra. But we should let Acton Ostling, Jr. have the last word: "Seldom did Mendelssohn attain the level of perfection he reached in the first movement of the C minor; scarcely did he ever equal the tempestuousness of its finale. The exquisite finish and satisfying form that were Mendelssohn's outstanding characteristics are present throughout these masterworks."

Louis J. Reith

©  by Mendelssohn Piano Trio since Dec. 1999
Last Update: May 10, 2019