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Hyperion Records

CDH55064 - Mendelssohn: Complete music for cello and piano
View of the Tegernsee looking towards the Quirinus Chapel (1825) by Johann Georg von Dillis (1759-1841)
CDH55064
(Originally issued on CDA66478)

Recording details: October 1988
Unknown, Unknown
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Keith Warren & Keith Wicks
Release date: October 2000
Total duration: 63 minutes 54 seconds

'Since the performances are expert in every respect this disc deserves a wide audience' (Classic CD)

'Chamber-music playing of the highest order, empathetic and warm-hearted' (Birmingham Post)

Complete music for cello and piano
Allegro vivace  [9'09]
Andante  [6'09]
Allegro assai  [6'26]
Adagio  [4'34]
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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
This recording presents all of Mendelssohn’s published work for cello and piano, and an unpublished fragment which is recorded here for the first time. These lively graceful works have, like much of his chamber music, been quite unjustly in eclipse since his lifetime, and have only in recent years found their way into the popular repertoire.

For a long time Mendelssohn’s music suffered from Romantic traditions of performance: exaggerated rubato, heavy phrasing and florid contrasts of colour. These distorted the true character of his music and made it sound pompous and sentimental. Yet Mendelssohn’s own nature was quite different. His formative influences were Bach and Mozart and his allegiance was to the Classical era; he himself often noted how different he felt to his famous Romantic contemporaries Berlioz, Chopin and Wagner. Perhaps we can learn to see him more as Schumann saw him: ‘the Mozart of the nineteenth century, the most illuminating of composers, who sees more clearly than others through the contradictions of our time and is the first to reconcile them’.

The Sonata in B flat major, Opus 45, was written around the beginning of 1838. In a letter of January 20th he mentions that it is finished, and also that he had been suffering from an ear infection which had left him temporarily deaf in one ear and fearful of the consequences. It was, nevertheless, a happy time: his wife Cecile was about to give birth to their first child, Karl Wolfgang Paul, who was born on February 7th. The child’s third name was in honour of Mendelssohn’s brother Paul, a financier and amateur cellist for whom this sonata, and the earlier Variations concertantes, were written.

The Mendelssohns were at this time living in Leipzig, where Felix was the conductor of the orchestral concerts in the Gewandhaus. His innovations in this series had a far-reaching effect on German musical life in general. He took over the conducting of symphonies, which had previously been directed ‘from the violin’ by the orchestral leader. He hired better players, and fought successfully to get their salaries raised. Equally important were his imaginative programmes. In the 1837/38 season, when this Sonata was written, he devised four ‘historical concerts’ which introduced the public to the music of Handel, Bach, Viotti, Cimarosa, Haydn, Naumann, Righini, Mozart, Salieri, Beethoven and the Abbé Vogler. Perhaps the large amount of music from the Classical era influenced the character of his own compositions, for the B flat Sonata is certainly Classical in form and mentality. Its textures are light and clear, its pacing superbly graded; only the piano writing, with the excited heartbeats common to both sonatas, shows the restless temperament of the nineteenth century.

The Variations concertantes were written almost a decade earlier, in 1829, when the composer was twenty. Their theme is one of those sweet, almost annoyingly simple melodies which represent the ‘homely’ side of Mendelssohn. It is followed by eight variations which show the influence of both Mozart’s and Beethoven’s sets of variations, but whose final number bursts out of its frame in a sudden display of Romantic fervour.

The D major Sonata, Opus 58, is a more potent, passionate work than the earlier sonata. It could not be described as Classical in spirit, though it uses traditional forms; its mood is exultant in the outer movements and the torrents of arpeggios in the piano part almost overwhelm the singing lines of the cello. The second movement is a lightfooted intermezzo of the type that Mendelssohn excelled in; the slow movement, perhaps inspired by Bach chorale and recitative, is a noble Adagio whose rolling piano chords support a touching soliloquy from the cello. Altogether it is a more personal, and thus more Romantic statement than the B flat Sonata.

It was written in the first half of 1843 when Mendelssohn’s life was full of demanding projects, some in the process of failing, others just coming into being. He had accepted from King Wilhelm an invitation to direct the Music Division of the new Academy of Arts in Berlin, an institution designed to secure Berlin’s place as Germany’s cultural centre. If it had succeeded as originally planned, Mendelssohn would have become the most powerful musician in the land, as his appointment made him director of the Music Faculty, composer for the Royal Theatre, director of the Royal Orchestra, and conductor and organiser of the Cathedral Choir. In 1841 the Mendelssohns moved to Berlin where Felix began to outline his ideas to the king, only to find himself thwarted by a mass of court beaurocracy and a monarch who, having initiated the idea, was losing interest in its practical realisation. After two frustrating years in Berlin, Mendelssohn persuaded the king to release him from many of his duties, and he moved back to Leipzig to undertake a project dear to his heart for some years – the creation of a Music Conservatory, which opened in the Gewandhaus in April 1843. Mendelssohn himself taught piano, ensemble and composition; Schumann taught piano and composition, and after a while they were joined on the staff by Clara Schumann, the pianist/composer Moscheles, and the Danish composer Niels Gade. In the midst of that year’s domestic upheaval, responsibilities and publicity, Mendelssohn somehow found time to write some of his best music: the Variations Sérieuses for piano, the incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the D major cello Sonata. The New Grove Dictionary says of it that the Sonata ‘communicates a concentrated impression of the dramatic tensions and contradictions through which he lived during those years’.

The unpublished Assai Tranquillo was composed on a journey from Düsseldorf to Leipzig on 25 July 1835. Mendelssohn wrote it as a memento for his friend and colleague Julius Rietz, a cellist who had also been Mendelssohn’s assistant Kapellmeister in Düsseldorf. The little piece was probably unfinished, as it ends with a pause on the dominant, but Mendelssohn signed it at that point and added a friendly dedication. In 1962 the piece was reproduced in facsimile by Reinhold Sietz in his article Das Stammbuch von Julius Rietz, now part of the collection Studies in the Music History of the Rhineland (published by Arno Volk, Cologne).

The Song without Words Opus 109 was Mendelssohn’s last work for cello and piano, written in 1845 but published after his death. It belongs to the great series of Songs without Words which run through his compositions from 1830 onwards. All are lyrical miniatures, and the ‘song’ for cello is one of the most perfect and memorable.

Susan Tomes © 1991

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