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Piano Trio No 1 in D minor, Op 49

'Mendelssohn: The Piano Trios' (CDA67485)
Mendelssohn: The Piano Trios
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Movement 1: Molto allegro agitato
Movement 2: Andante con moto tranquillo
Movement 3: Scherzo: Leggiero e vivace
Movement 4: Finale: Allegro assai appassionato

Piano Trio No 1 in D minor, Op 49
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.

from notes by Robert Philip © 2005

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