Movement 1: Allegro energico e fuoco
Movement 2: Andante espressivo
Movement 3: Scherzo: Molto allegro quasi presto
Movement 4: Finale: Allegro appassionato
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.
from notes by Robert Philip © 2005