MENDELSSOHN: Sonata in B Flat Major / Fantasies, Op. 16 (Benjamin Frith/ Gary Cole) (Naxos: 8.553186)
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Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809 - 1847)
Piano Music Vol. 3
Sonata in B flat major, Op. 106
Three Fantasies or Caprices, Op. 16
Album-Leaf in E minor, Op. 117
Andante cantabile e Presto agitato in B major
Variations in E flat major, Op. 82
Rondo capriccioso in E major, Op. 14
Felix Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg in 1809, eldest son of the banker Abraham Mendelssohn and grandson of the great Jewish thinker Moses Mendelssohn, the model for his friend Lessing's magnanimous and tolerant Nathan the Wise. In 1812 the family moved to Berlin, after the French occupation of Hamburg, and it was there that Mendelssohn received his education, in music as a pupil of Carl Zelter, for whom the boy seemed a second Mozart. As a child he was charming and precocious, profiting from the wide cultural interests and connections of his parents and relations, excelling as a pianist and busy \With composition after composition. In 1816 he was baptized a Christian, a step his father took six years later, accepting what Heine cynically described as a ticket of admission into European culture, although it was one not always regarded as valid by prejudiced contemporaries.
Abraham Mendelssohn sought the best advice when it came to his son's choice of career. Cherubini, director of the Paris Conservatoire, was consulted, and, while complimenting Abraham Mendelssohn on his wealth, agreed that his son should become a professional musician, advice given during the course of a visit to Paris in 1825, when Mendelssohn met many of the most distinguished composers and performers of the day. In Berlin his career took shape, with prolific composition and activity as a pianist and as a conductor. His education was to include a period of travel throughout Europe, a Grand Tour that took him as far north as Scotland and as far south as Naples, his journeys serving as sources of inspiration.
In 1833 Mendelssohn was invited to conduct at the Lower Rhine Festival in Düsseldorf, where he held the position of city director of music for two years, and in 1835 he accepted appointment as conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. There were, at the same time, other commitments to be fulfilled in a short career of intense activity, with a series of visits to England, where he was always welcome. In Leipzig he established a series of historical concerts, continuing the revival of earlier music on which he had embarked under Zelter with the Berlin performance of Bach's St Matthew Passion in 1829. At the same time he gave every encouragement to contemporary composers, even to those for whom he felt little sympathy. At the insistence of the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm IV he accepted an official position in Berlin, but this failed to give him the satisfaction he had found in Leipzig, where he established the Conservatory in 1843 and where he spent his final years until his death at the age of thirty-eight on 4th November 1847, six months after the death of his gifted and beloved sister Fanny.
With an opus number that indicates the year of posthumous publication, 1868, rather than the year of composition, 1827, Mendelssohn's Sonata in B flat major has its key and something of its tonal structure in common with Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata, but close comparisons here would prove particularly odious. Mendelssohn's sonata is much more smoothly classical in conception, its counterpoint in the central development of its virtually monothematic first movement owing much to Zelter's teaching. The Allegro vivace opens boldly and, like Beethoven, Mendelssohn chooses the key of G major for the derivative second subject of a movement in tripartite classical sonata-allegro form. There is a shift of key to B flat minor for the Scherzo, with its rapid arpeggios, and to E major for a gently lilting slow movement, at the end of which an Allegro molto linking section brings a change of key and mood, to lead to the final Allegro moderato, a busy movement that finds a place for a gentle reminiscence of the Scherzo.
Mendelssohn w rote his Three Fantasies or Caprices, Opus 16, in 1829 for the three daughters of the Taylor family with whom he stayed during a visit to Wales, on his way back from Scotland. He expressed his dislike of the so-called national music he heard, whether bagpipes in Scotland or the Welsh harp in Llangollen, but the Taylor girls at Coed-du provided the necessary inspiration for an opening A minor-A major fantasy suggested by a bunch of roses and carnations, a second, a rapid E minor Scherzo inspired by what might have been miniature daffodils, worn by one of the girls in her hair, and a third, a running Andante in E major, reflecting a flowing stream.
The Album-Leaf in E minor, Opus 117, a Song without Words, finally published in 1872, was probably written in 1837, the year of Mendelssohn's marriage to Cécile Jeanrenaud, daughter of a Huguenot pastor, whom he had met in Frankfurt. A lyrical melody is introduced over a gently undulating left-hand accompaniment, leading to a central section in E major, where the same basic rhythm is continued.
Mendelssohn's Andante cantabile e Presto agitato was written in 1838 for the Musikalisches Album of the following year. It starts with a slow B major introduction in the style of a Song without Words. An excited B minor Presto agitato follows, its progress briefly interrupted before original impetus is restored, leading to an emphatic conclusion.
The Variations in E flat major, Opus 82, were written in 1841. In May Mendelssohn had returned to Berlin. It had been suggested to him that the Academy of Arts, under the rule of the new king, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, should be reorganized and that Mendelssohn should take charge of the music section, establishing a conservatory and taking charge of the performance of sacred and secular music. The composer's family was very much in favour of the idea. His father had died in 1835, but his mother, Leah Mendelssohn, was still living in Berlin, as were his sister Fanny, his brother Paul and other members of the family. Mendelssohn was at first reluctant to move from Leipzig. In Berlin he had had an earlier reverse, when he had failed to gain appointment, in succession to his teacher Zelter, as director of the Singakadamie. Berlin again brought disappointment and by 1842 Mendelssohn was in Leipzig again, setting up his conservatory there in November. It was in Berlin in the summer of 1841 that he seems to have written three sets of variations for piano, of which the Variations sérieuses, Opus 54, are the best known. The Opus 82 Variations present a hymn-like theme, marked Andante assai espressivo, followed by five variations. The first of these allows the lower register to be answered by the higher; the second has a running triple-rhythm accompaniment; the third, marked Più vivace offers solid, repeated chords, as one register answers the other; the fourth, Più moderato, has a repeated figure in the bass, while the fifth opens with notes of greater rapidity, before the final section and ultimate return of the theme.
The Rondo capriccioso, Opus 14, was composed in 1828 and 1830. Its E minor Presto written in the former year, and the opening E major Andante added in the latter. It remains a work familiar to players and audiences and explores a vein with which Mendelssohn is inevitably associated, the fairy-like textures familiar from his music for Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, the overture to which he wrote in 1826. The rondo itself contains a brilliant excursion into the t