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8.550655 - MENDELSSOHN: Cello Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2 / Variations Concertantes

Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809 - 1847)
Cello Sonata No. 1 in B Flat Major, Op. 45
Variations concertantes, Op. 17
Cello Sonata No. 2 in D Major, Op. 58
Song without Words, Op. 109


Felix Mendelssohn, grandson of Moses Mendelssohn, the great Jewish thinker of the Enlightenment, was born in Hamburg in 1809, the son of a prosperous banker. His family was influential in cultural circles, and he and his sister were educated in an environment that encouraged both musical and general cultural interests. At the same time the extensive acquaintance of the Mendelssohns among artists and men of letters brought an unusual breadth of mind, a stimulus to natural curiosity.

Much of Mendelssohn's childhood was passed in Berlin, where his parents moved when he was three, to escape Napoleonic invasion. There he took lessons from Goethe's much admired Zelter, who introduced him to the old poet in Weimar. The choice of a career in music was eventually decided on the advice of Cherubini, consulted by Abraham Mendelssohn in Paris, where he was director of the Conservatoire. There followed a period of further education, a Grand Tour of Europe that took him to Italy and north to Scotland. His professional career began in earnest with his appointment as general director of music in Düsseldorf in 1833.

Mendelssohn's subsequent career was intense and brief. He set tied in Leipzig as conductor of the Gewandhaus concerts, and was instrumental in establishing the Conservatory there. Briefly lured to Berlin by the King of Prussia and by the importunity of his family, he spent an unsatisfactory year or so as director of the music section of the Academy of Arts, providing music for a revival of classical drama under royal encouragement. The appointment he was glad to relinquish in 1844, later returning to his old position in Leipzig, where he died in 1847.

As a composer Mendelssohn possessed a perfect technical command of the resources available to him and was always able to write music that is felicitous, apt and often remarkably economical in the way it achieves its effects. Mendelssohn had, like the rest of his family, accepted Christian baptism, a ceremony Heine once described as a ticket of admission into European culture. Nevertheless he encountered anti-Semitic prejudice, as others were to, and false ideas put about in his own life-time have left some trace in modern repetitions of accusations of superficiality for which there is no real justification.

The first of Mendelssohn's two sonatas for cello and piano was written in 1838 for the composer's brother Paul. The first movement opens with a statement of the first bars by both instruments, the first motif developed in a passage leading to the second subject and contributing largely to the central development. The G minor slow movement develops gradually from its own opening figure, in music of increasing elaboration. The last movement starts with a cello statement of the principal theme, which frames episodes of contrasting rhythm and texture. The sonata ends with a gentle coda.

Mendelssohn performed his second cello sonata, written in 1843, in London in 1845 with the cellist Piatti. The highly characteristic D major first movement starts in a splendidly cheerful mood, moving forward to a less robust second subject. There is an exciting central development section, followed by a fuller recapitulation and histrionic coda. The B minor second movement is a scherzo, its lightness of mood stressed by the plucked notes of the cello. A brief slow movement in G major, with widespread arpeggiated piano chords offering a chorale on which the cello meditates in a passionate recitative. The sonata ends with a finale of rapid brilliance.

The Variations concertantes, Opus 17, were written in 1827 for Mendelssohn's fourteen-year-old brother Paul. The two instruments share the theme. The first of the eight variations leaves the theme to the cello, to which the piano provides a varied accompaniment. The second and third variations make use of corn pound and contrasting rhythms respectively. The fourth version of the material, marked Allegro con fuoco, allows chief activity to the piano, while the plucked strings of the cello echo the opening figures of the fifth. In the following variation the cello adds a constantly moving semiquaver accompaniment to the piano and this is followed by a variation marked Presto ad agitato, much of the agitation entrusted to the piano. A sustained note from the cello links and accompanies the final version of the theme, before the exciting variety of the coda and hushed conclusion.

The notion of a song without words was an original one, yet it suited very well the short character pieces for piano that Mendelssohn wrote. He wrote one such piece for cello and piano, a compliment to Lisa Christiani, this short work was probably written in 1845, the year of the last Songs without Words for piano, which it closely resembles in mood and form, an outer D major Andante framing a more excited D minor central section.

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