These notes are reproduced from the original programme notes for the Whittington International Chamber Music Festival 2015 and are copyright Christopher Symons.
Mendelssohn- Piano Trio in D minor, Op 49
To open this evening’s second concert of the Festival, one of Mendelssohn’s most popular and brilliant chamber works -the Op 49 Piano Trio – an exhilaratingly happy fusion of two of his particular marks of genius, an innate feeling for lyricism in string writing and a total mastery of writing for the piano. He had, after all, written a clutch of ‘string symphonies’ while still in his early teens (one to be heard this Sunday) as well as the incomparable String Octet, aged 16, (again on Sunday), whilst his technique at the keyboard was the talk of Europe’s music salons. That he should therefore go on to blend these inspirational elements into two piano trios (as well as three piano quartets and a piano sextet) seems entirely understandable and predictable. Following its premiere in Frankfurt (1840), with Mendelssohn himself at the piano, Schumann called it ‘…the most brilliant trio of the present day. It will give pleasure to our grandchildren and great-grandchildren. It is the master trio of today, as were those of Beethoven in B flat and D and that of Schubert in E flat.’
Schumann went on to write about the Trio: ‘…so let the new work have its effect everywhere, as it should have, and prove anew to us the artistic power of its creator, which now appears to be in fullest flower.’ After listening to it now, I have no doubt you will agree that he knew what he was talking about! There are the usual four movements.
I Molto allegro agitato In sonata form, the opening subject in the cello sets a tone of dark unease and brooding. Mendelssohn is a master of colour, and here his palette overflows with blacks and greys, like the waves tossing some frail craft as it claws its way round the island of Staffa to arrive before the gaping jaws of Fingal’s Cave. This unsettled mood is deepened by the diminished arpeggios on the piano, which (to continue the image) seem to rise and fall like those selfsame waves as they dash in and out against the Hebridean cliffs. This passion and violence eventually gives way as the second subject appears, again, a rising and falling melody, but now in the key of A major. Following the development of both themes, the ending reverts to the turbulence heard at the opening.
II Andante con moto tranquillo All is serenity: the skies have cleared, all danger is past, and in the reassuring warmth of B flat major we are treated to a virtual ‘song without words’.
III Scherzo: Leggiero e vivace We’ve tasted the serious and the placid: now for the fun!
I myself have played this trio, and look forward immensely to watch Caspar’s fingers skimming over the keyboard, getting all the wonderful effects (which I am good at) but also all the right notes (which I am not good at!). It really is a tour de force, and exactly what a scherzo should be, packed with energy, humour and virtuosity.
The pianist buzzes off from the start, like one of Mendelssohn’s nuptial bees, to be closely followed by his two attendant bridesmaids (possibly in drag this evening). The ‘throw-away’ ending is magical, as the three merry insects fly off, quietly high on nectar.
IV Finale: Allegro assai appassionato Enough of this frivolity: sonata form again, and back to the original opening key, D minor. Somehow, though, the earlier anguish has gone: we are now in gypsy territory, and the second subject (in B flat major again) positively sings along. As if that were not enough, some of the scherzo’s playfulness soon slips in, never more so than in the closing coda. Nothing short of an heroic final few bars is merited – nay, demanded – by this truly great work, and that is exactly what the composer gives us, as all three players triumphantly and in total unison dash to the finishing line. Bravo, maestro Felix!
This short and rather lovely work was written in 1835. Caspar and Julian, in the sleeve notes on their recording of the piece, argue that any claim or criticism of superficiality in the music, any suggestion that it is too facile, needs to be treated with caution. They suggest (not altogether playfully) that the fault (if any such exists) may well lie with the performers. ‘It is more appropriate’ they argue ‘to search for the apparent superficiality of a work in your own playing rather than in the work itself.’ Food for thought, that….