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Piano Sonata in E major, Op 6

'Mendelssohn: The Complete Solo Piano Music, Vol. 1' (CDA67935)
Mendelssohn: The Complete Solo Piano Music, Vol. 1
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Movement 1: Allegretto con espressione
Movement 2: Tempo di menuetto
Movement 3: Adagio e senza tempo
Movement 4: Molto allegro e vivace

Piano Sonata in E major, Op 6
Mendelssohn was among the first generation of musicians to experience and come to terms with Beethoven’s now abstract, now lyrical, and now rarefied late style. According to Robert Schumann, in his Piano Sonata in E major Op 6 (1826) the seventeen-year-old Mendelssohn touched ‘Beethoven with his right hand, while looking up to him as to a saint, and being guided at the other by Carl Maria von Weber (with whom it would be more possible to be on a human footing)’. If Weber’s sparkling virtuosity informed the vivacious, driving finale of the sonata, it was Beethoven who left the most profound mark. Among points of contact between Op 6 and Beethoven’s late style are: the cantabile style of the opening first movement; key relationships a tone apart; broadly spaced chords and special pedal effects; the linking of various movements; the use of a free, unmeasured recitative in the slow movement; and cyclic applications of thematic material.

Near the end of the exposition in the first movement Mendelssohn pays homage to Beethoven by alluding to a luminous passage near the end of the slow movement of the ‘Archduke’ Piano Trio (1811), a work that lies on the threshold of Beethoven’s late style. But it was Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in A major, Op 101 (1816) that especially captured the young composer’s attention. Op 101 and Op 6 begin in E major, with gently rising melodic lines doubled in thirds (Beethoven) or tenths (Mendelssohn). While E major is the tonic of Op 6, it is the dominant of Op 101, so that Beethoven’s sonata begins as if in medias res, and then charts a course toward its A major tonic. Mendelssohn thus took the more conventional route, and in this regard his first movement might seem a pale imitation of Beethoven’s.

The second movement offers a puckish minuet that approaches the quality of a scherzo, but it is the third movement Adagio on which Mendelssohn lavished the most care. Here he begins with a turning figure reminiscent of Beethoven’s Adagio in Op 101, but then develops the figure into an extended, unmetred recitative, with four descending entries in imitative counterpoint. The effect is of a paraphrase or, better, a re-hearing of Beethoven. Subsequently, this recitative alternates with a hymn-like Andante, as if searching for a theme, ultimately answered by the arrival of the finale, linked to the slow movement through a fantasy-like transition. When all is said and done, Mendelssohn springs one final surprise near the end of the sonata, where the youthful energy of the finale unexpectedly yields to a recall of the opening of the work, bringing the music back to its source, and framing the whole.

from notes by R Larry Todd © 2013

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