'What immediately impresses about these performances by the Florestan Trio is the lightness and clarity of the playing, with Susan Tomes characteristically sparing in her use of pedal. In both works the scherzo is a typically fleeting and transparent piece, and it would be hard to imagine either more satisfactorily done' (BBC Music Magazine)
'This is a truly stunning account … positively phenomenal, often building up to a volcanic passion that can sweep you away. Mendelssohn's thrilling élan has rarely been more wonderfully evoked' (Classic FM Magazine)
'The Florestan's progress through the piano-trio repertoire reaches a peak with these masterly performances. All three players - Anthony Marwood, Richard Lester, Susan Tomes - do splendid justice to the surge and sweep of the great D minor, but also to its song-like tenderness' (The Sunday Times)
'The Florestan Trio were born to play Mendelssohn's two piano trios. Like the composer, they never overegg the pudding or skate over delights too briskly. Light and crisp in attack, but reflective when necessary, they move through the music with fleetness, joy, and an ensemble spirit that never allows for any cracks' (The Times)
'This is music that the Florestan Trio was born to play. Violinist Anthony Marwood’s silvery purity, Richard Lester’s rich-toned clarity throughout the cello’s range and Susan Tomes’s exquisite phrasal subtlety fit hand-in-glove with Mendelssohn’s rarefied sound world. Add to that atmospheric engineering of velvet-cushioned clarity and this really is something of a dream disc' (The Strad)
'The Florestans keep textures light and transparent. Both performances are models of Mendelssohn interpretation' (The Guardian)
'Susan Tomes is a brilliant Mendelssohn pianist, not only in her wonderfully fleeting, accurate fingerwork but in her understanding of the shape and colour of the music and of Mendelssohn’s cunning sense of formal direction in his often quite complicated structures … The recording, of a thoroughly enjoyable disc, is exemplary in balance and clear presentation' (International Record Review)
'these performances ensure solid balance throughout, with just the right conversational quality between the instruments to allow each to come forward and retreat according to the music's dictates … Thoroughly recommended' (Scotland on Sunday)
'should give the lie to the cliché that Mendelssohn's genius declined irredeemably after the brilliance of youth. While always keeping the potentially dense textures lucid (Susan Tomes's refined, singing tone and articulation a constant pleasure), the Florestan play this with a mingled fire and lyrical tenderness that I have never heard bettered' (Gramophone)
'This is indeed terrific stuff...Their Mendelssohn-playing is nothing shot of stunning. Susan Tomes manages the intricate piano parts’ considerable technical challenges, not only with dead-on precision, but also with exactly the right touch: clean and delicate, but never dry, and never overbalancing the strings. Violinist Anthony Marwood and cellist Richard Lester play as one, with perfect ensemble and intonation. Balances and interplay among instruments are ideal throughout. All this is captured with wonderful transparency in Hyperion’s recording, with just the right amount of aural space around the instruments. Robert Philip’s notes are detailed to a fault. This has to be one of the year’s top chamber releases. Enthusiastically recommended' (Fanfare, USA)
'The Florestan Trio plays Mendelssohn's Trios faster, cleaner and more beautifully than I would have thought possible. This is the best new chamber recording I've heard this year' (Fanfare, USA)
Molto allegro agitato [9'08]
Andante con moto tranquillo [5'47]
Scherzo: Leggiero e vivace [3'31]
Allegro energico e fuoco [9'57]
Andante espressivo [6'05]
Finale: Allegro appassionato [7'17]
The Florestan Trio is firmly established as one of Britain’s—indeed the world’s—most distinguished and remarkably talented ensembles, their Hyperion recordings of Schubert, Schumann and Brahms receiving universal praise. Here they turn their attention to Mendelssohn’s two late piano trios and the performances are fresh and exhilarating!
Mendelssohn was without doubt the most precociously gifted composer the world has ever known: not even Mozart produced ‘mature’ masterpieces while still in his teens. He was also double prodigy on the violin and piano (Clara Schumann described him as ‘the dearest pianist of all’), an exceptional athlete, a talented poet (Goethe was a childhood friend and confidant), multi-linguist, watercolorist and philosopher. He excelled at virtually anything which could hold his attention for long enough, although it was music above all which activated his creative imagination.
The well-known Op 49 in D minor and Op 66 in C minor represent the peak of Mendelssohn’s achievement in his relatively small output of chamber music; both trios are similar in structure and mood, beginning with a sombre and intense first movement, followed by a lyrical and melodic slow movement; the third movement is a fleeting and magical scherzo and ending with an energetic finale.
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The composer Hubert Parry, one of the generation of English Victorians most influenced by Mendelssohn, wrote of him, ‘He squeezed as much work into his short life as most men get into a life of twice the length […]. He was too full of occupation to brood over the troubles of the world, or to think much of the tragedies and the stern workings of fate; but all moods must have their expression in art, and those which were natural for him to express he dealt with in the most delicate and artistic way, and the results have afforded healthy and refined pleasure to an immense number of people.’
Of the achievements that crowded Mendelssohn’s short life there can be no doubt. He was not only a prolific composer, but also an important administrator, concert director and performer. By the time he wrote the first of his piano trios, he had been appointed the Director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra at the age of twenty-six, where he fought to improve standards and to broaden the repertoire. Between the writing of the two trios he had founded the Leipzig Conservatoire. He pioneered the revival of the music of J S Bach, whose St Matthew Passion he had conducted at the age of only twenty. He was also, like Beethoven and Mozart before him, one of the great pianists of his age. But he did not like to seem to be showing off his immense talent, as a reminiscence by the violinist Joseph Joachim demonstrates. Joachim (then only thirteen) was to play the Piano Trio in D minor in England with Mendelssohn at the piano in 1844. When they reached the concert room, they found that the piano part was missing. ‘Never mind’, said Mendelssohn, ‘put any book on the piano, and someone can turn from time to time, so that I need not look as though I play by heart.’ Joachim comments, ‘Nowadays, when people put so much importance on playing or conducting without book, I think this might be considered a good moral lesson of a great musician’s modesty.’
As for Parry’s assessment of Mendelssohn’s music, it is true that much of it has an easy charm and fluency that has gone in and out of fashion: one generation’s ‘healthy and refined’ is another generation’s ‘comfortable and unchallenging’. But much of his music is uniquely beautiful, and the two piano trios are among his greatest and most substantial works, not only brimming with his unique melodic gift, but also deeply serious in purpose.
The two trios are quite similar in structure and mood. Both begin with a sombre and intense first movement, each has a marvellously lyrical slow movement, and the third movement of both trios is a scherzo with that fleeting, magical quality that Mendelssohn made his own when, as a teenager, he wrote his overture to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The two final movements start in determined mood, building energy towards a brilliant conclusion. Because of their virtuoso piano parts, Mendelssohn’s trios have suffered from generations of pianists who have treated them as if they were piano concertos, encouraging critics to think that the writing is somewhat overloaded and unbalanced. But, as is often the way with great composers, Mendelssohn knew exactly what he was doing, and a performance by real chamber musicians reveals these trios as works of sparkling transparency.
The Piano Trio No 1 in D minor Op 49 is the better known of the two, and was an immediate success after it was written in 1839. Schumann wrote of it, ‘This is the master trio of our age, as were the B flat and D major trios of Beethoven and the E flat trio of Schubert in their times. It is an exceedingly fine composition which will gladden our grandchildren and great-grandchildren for many years to come.’ After Mendelssohn had finished it, he showed it to the composer Ferdinand Hiller, who was staying with him in Leipzig. Hiller was very impressed, but had ‘one small misgiving. Certain pianoforte passages in it, constructed on broken chords, seemed to me – to speak candidly – somewhat old-fashioned.’ Hiller was a long-time friend of Liszt and Chopin, and was ‘thoroughly accustomed to the richness of passages which marked the new pianoforte school’. The result of Hiller’s suggestions was that Mendelssohn rewrote the entire piano part, making it less conventional in style – and, no doubt, much more difficult to play.
The cello’s great opening theme would seem leisurely if it were not for the piano’s agitated chords underneath it – the effect is like a great liner sweeping through choppy seas. The piano’s figurations become flying arpeggios as the theme is repeated. Then the music relaxes into a song-like second melody, with the piano still murmuring below. The middle section of the movement is dominated by this second theme, at times woven into counterpoint, at others building to climaxes. The return to the opening theme is particularly beautiful, with the cello’s melody joined by a haunting descending line in the violin (a new thought which Mendelssohn will develop further in the slow movement). The brilliance of the piano-writing reaches a climax in the final pages of the movement, which Mendelssohn marks ‘assai animato’.
The second movement is a lovely ‘Song without Words’ led by the piano, with each half repeated by the strings. Then, with a simple touch from major to minor, the piano launches into one of the most beautiful moments in the whole trio. This is the descending line which the violin played at the return of the opening theme in the first movement. Here it develops into an impassioned dialogue, and then subsides back to the opening song which is now elaborated delicately by the piano.
It is difficult to imagine that even the great Mendelssohn, playing on the light pianos of his day, could have performed the scherzo at his metronome marking – though the Italian instruction is merely ‘light and lively’. This movement is one of Mendelssohn’s most exuberant and delightful inspirations, with the opening motif constantly thrown from instrument to instrument, as if the fairies of A Midsummer Night’s Dream are at play. There are dark moments, and in the middle a suggestion of another song trying to break through. But in the end the lightness predominates, and the music vanishes into the sky as effortlessly as it arrived.
The finale is to be played ‘passionately’, but it starts with a quiet, four-square theme that at first seems very down-to-earth after the scherzo. As in the first movement, it is the brilliance of the piano-writing that lifts it off the ground and drives it forward. We seem set for a movement full of virtuosity and dash. But unexpectedly the cello launches into another of Mendelssohn’s sweeping melodies. After a time the opening returns, hesitantly at first, but then developing into another passage full of cascading piano-writing. It seems as if the end is approaching, but the singing cello theme breaks through again, leading to a final climax which brings together the virtuoso and lyrical elements of the movement.
The Piano Trio No 2 in C minor Op 66 followed six years after the D minor, in 1845, and was dedicated to Louis Spohr. Mendelssohn wrote to him, ‘I would like to have saved the honour for a somewhat longer piece, but then I should have had to put it off, as I have so often of late. Nothing seemed good enough to me, and in fact neither does this trio.’ Mendelssohn’s energy and health were beginning to fail, and he had retired from his orchestral duties. But there is no sign of weakness in the C minor Trio. It is as fine a work as its companion, and if it has never been as popular as the D minor, this is because it does not wear its melody on its sleeve in quite the same way.
For Mendelssohn’s generation, writing a work in C minor had a particular resonance from the music of Mozart and Beethoven. Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C minor was greatly admired by Beethoven for its uniquely ambivalent mood of serene tragedy. Beethoven’s works in C minor have a characteristically rugged seriousness of purpose – the ‘Pathétique’ Sonata, Fifth Symphony, and Overture to Coriolan – and they in turn were admired by Mendelssohn and his contemporaries. Joachim once heard Mendelssohn play the Overture to Coriolan on the piano from the full score, in which ‘he brought out the effects of the orchestral score in a most astonishing manner’. It is easy to imagine this scene as Mendelssohn’s Trio in C minor gets under way.
Unlike the D minor Trio, this work does not start with a fully fledged melody, but with a swirling pattern rising up from the bass. But Mendelssohn can never resist melody for long, and as the piano becomes more agitated the violin and cello sing above it. With such a turbulent start to the movement, one might expect the second theme to be a quiet contrast. But it emerges fortissimo out of the climax, only then calming to a gentle melody. Staccato versions of the opening motif lead to a grand, almost chorale-like culmination, and cascades of arpeggios round off the first section of the movement. A meditation on the second theme follows, led by the cello, with fragments of the opening pattern interwoven. Seamlessly, we find ourselves back where we started, with the piano still playing fragments of the second theme as the violin and cello launch into the reprise of the opening. The sequence of events proceeds much as before, subsiding into a moment of hush. From this emerges an almost ecclesiastical-sounding interweaving of violin and cello, and the sense of ancient grandeur is enhanced by the strings playing the opening pattern at half speed in counterpoint with the piano. A mighty crescendo follows, and, after a pause, the movement hammers to its close with almost Beethoven-like ferocity.
The slow movement, as in the D minor Trio, is a ‘Song without Words’, this time with a swinging rhythm reminiscent of Mendelssohn’s Venetian Gondola Songs. A middle section ventures further afield, and the opening returns with its melody intensified by delicate filigrees in the piano, rising to an impassioned climax.
The scherzo, like that of the first Trio, has an impossibly fast metronome marking, but with the more realistic instruction ‘quasi presto’. Unlike the earlier scherzo, this one is in a minor key, which has the curious effect of making it sound closer to the fairy world of Mendelssohn’s music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream (do fairies only dance in minor keys?), though the scherzo it most resembles is that of Mendelssohn’s Octet.
The finale is like a sturdy Baroque jig on a grand scale – indeed, its opening few notes are rather like the gigue that ends J S Bach’s English Suite in G minor. The cello’s initial leap takes on different guises as the movement proceeds. At first it is startling and forceful, overshooting an octave from G to A flat; later it is softened to become playful or wistful, returning to its original character (and interval) at emphatic and climactic moments. The second theme is vintage Mendelssohn, with the violin and cello rising in song out of a fortissimo climax, rather as they did at the equivalent point of the first movement. After the neo-Baroque start, Mendelssohn saves his most striking antique reference for the heart of the movement. This is a Lutheran-style chorale, intoned quietly by the piano as the strings continue to exchange fragments of the opening theme, like two diminutive figures speaking in hushed tones as they enter a great cathedral. This chorale returns to form a mighty climax near the end of the movement. Several writers have stated that it is a genuine sixteenth-century chorale, notably Eric Werner, who has identified it as ‘Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich’ from the 1551 Genevan Psalter. This is the original of the hymn tune known in the English-speaking world as ‘The Old Hundredth’ (‘All people that on earth do dwell’). The opening does indeed resemble it, particularly the second phrase, but thereafter Mendelssohn is not so much quoting a chorale as meditating on it, taking the melody to a new climax. Whether or not Mendelssohn had this particular chorale in mind is really beside the point, just as it doesn’t matter whether he was quoting Bach at the opening of the movement. His approach to such material was essentially Romantic. Like contemporary poets and painters, what he offers to the listener is his own contemplation of this ancient religious music, and the majestic climax shows that Mendelssohn shared the Romantic vision of the sacred as personal experience, as an aspect of the sublime.
Robert Philip © 2005