Mendelssohn: Piano Trio No.2 Op 66

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)

Piano Trio No.2 Op 66
Allegro energico e con fuoco
Andante espressivo

[on a program with Brahms PIano Trio Op 8 1854 version]


Despite a vast gap in social class, Mendelssohn and Brahms enjoyed relatively similar upbringings. Both were born in Hamburg, were precocious pianists, and enjoyed a well-rounded education. Each of their music teachers instilled in them a love for the Viennese Classicists and both spent their teenaged years studying Bach.

While Mendelssohn was the debonaire socialite to Brahms’ grumpy old man, both men read voraciously on a wide range of subjects and were quite taken by fairy tales and other stories. One striking difference is that Mendelssohn wrote the majority of his most brilliant works when he was a teenager while it took Brahms 30 years to get warmed up to the idea of being a composer.

The music of Bach was of great importance to Mendelssohn and he spent countless hours learning and writing fugues and chorales. It is not an exaggeration to say that Mendelssohn was responsible for the exalted position Bach occupies today. It may seem shocking to modern audiences but before Mendelssohn mounted a revival of St Matthew’s Passion in 1829, Bach was regarded as an out-of-touch, provincial has-been whose music was relevant only as an academic exercise for composition students.

Another influential aspect of Mendelssohn’s music was his faith. His family was Jewish but took on the name Bartholdy and converted to Christianity in 1822 in order to make it easier to live in 19th-century Berlin. By all accounts his faith was genuine and he often set chorales in otherwise secular compositions, the most famous of which is his setting of the Dresden Amen and Ein’ feste Burg his 1830 Reformation Symphony.

Although he was educated in the first Viennese School, the Romantic Mendelssohn appropriated the gestures rather than the strict formal style of his predecessors. The opening movement of the Trio is unified by a motivic idea instead of the traditional primary and secondary themes. The arpeggio motif is augmented and diminished and played at varying dynamic levels throughout the exposition, development and recap. Mendelssohn creates enormous tension in the coda by scoring the motif in the piano while the strings play the same material at half the speed.

For all intents and purposes the second movement is an orchestrated Song Without Words. Mendelssohn wrote many of these for solo piano, often as gifts for his sister Fanny. In this case, the role of the voice is taken on by the violin and while the cello weaves a countermelody around the accompaniment in the piano. The mood is gentle and lilting as if evoking a babbling brook or spinning wheel. Just as Brahms did in his slow movement, Mendelssohn strengthens the link to vocal music by alternating piano solo with ensemble textures.

The scherzo is one of the forms in which Mendelssohn took great delight. One only has to think of A Midsummer Night’s Dream or his Third Symphony to be reminded of his skill at weaving delicate, jovial themes at breakneck speed.

Except for a brief respite in the middle, the movement has the feeling of being on the verge of spiralling out of control at any moment. Mendelssohn’s love of fantasy is evident in the closing bars of this movement, as the alternating themes seem to disappear into thin air, leaving the listener unsure if the last 200 seconds were real or merely a dream.

Ending a work with a rondo was typical of the Viennese Classicists largely because of the great deal of thematic flexibility and opportunity for variation it afforded the composer. Mendelssohn took full advantage and the Finale does not disappoint.

The boisterous enthusiasm of the opening theme is interrupted by a far more serious quotation of Bach’s chorale Gelobet seist Du, Jesu Christ {Praise to You, Jesus Christ) BWV64. The transition is sudden but not abrupt and the strings decorate the piano melody with the opening motive before playing the chorale theme themselves.

The opening motive returns again without ceremony and builds to a climax culminating in an unadorned restatement of the chorale tune. The main material returns again and after a unison string passage, races towards the frenzied cadential passage that ends the piece.

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