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8.554725 - MENDELSSOHN: Works for Violin and Piano (Complete)

Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809-1847)

Complete music for violin and piano

Born in Hamburg in 1809, eldest son of the banker Abraham Mendelssohn and grandson of the great Jewish thinker Moses Mendelssohn, Felix Mendelssohn, who took the additional name Bartholdy on his baptism as a Christian, Heine's ticket of admission to European culture, was brought up in Berlin, where his family settled in 1812. Here he enjoyed the wide cultural opportunities that his family offered, through their own interests and connections. Mendelssohn's early gifts, manifested in a number of directions, included marked musical precocity, both as a composer and as a performer, at a remarkably early age. These exceptional abilities received every encouragement from his family and their friends, although Abraham Mendelssohn entertained early doubts about the desirability of his son taking the profession of musician. These reservations were in part put to rest by the advice of Cherubini in Paris and by the increasing signs of the boy's musical abilities and interests.

Mendelssohn's early manhood brought the opportunity to travel, as far south as Naples and as far north as The Hebrides, with Italy and Scotland both providing the inspiration for later symphonies. His career involved him in the Lower Rhine Festival in Düsseldorf and a period as city director of music, followed, in 1835, by appointment as conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig. Here he was able to continue the work he had started in Berlin six years earlier, when he had conducted in Berlin a revival of Bach's St Matthew Passion. Leipzig was to provide a degree of satisfaction that he could not find in Berlin, where he returned at the invitation of King Friedrich Wilhelm IV in 1841. In Leipzig once more, in 1843, he established a new Conservatory, spending his final years there, until his death at the age of 38 on 4th November 1847, six months after the death of his gifted and beloved sister Fanny.

Mendelssohn completed his Violin Sonata in F major on 15th June 1838, but withheld it from publication, leaving its rediscovery to Yehudi Menuhin, who published the work in 1953. It is an example of music of the composer's maturity, at a time when he had begun to contemplate the great Violin Concerto in E minor. This last was introduced to the public in Leipzig in 1845 by Ferdinand David, a pupil of Spohr, who had taken up a position in 1836, at the age of 26, as leader of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra under Mendelssohn. The sonata in many ways prefigures the later concerto and was presumably written with David in mind. The first movement starts with the expected brilliance in a principal subject stated initially by the piano and extended by the violin. This leads to secondary material, appearing first with a shift to the minor. The central development ends with a passage accompanied by violin arpeggios, prefiguring a similar passage in the future concerto. These arpeggios accompany the start of the recapitulation, as the principal subject makes its return. The moving A major Adagio again allows the piano to introduce the main theme, then taken up by the violin in a movement of fine simplicity that still finds a place for outbursts of passionate feeling. The sonata ends with a movement in the familiar style of a Mendelssohn scherzo in which the writing for the two instruments remains, as always, perfectly balanced.

Mendelssohn owed his early training as a violinist to his teacher and friend Eduard Rietz Born in Berlin in 1802, the son of a violinist in the Berlin Court Orchestra, Rietz had joined the same orchestra in 1819, leaving it in 1825, after disagreements with the conductor Spontini, to found the Berlin Philharmonic Society the following year, leading its semi-amateur orchestra in concerts with the Berlin Singakademie. This was the ensemble that he led in Mendelssohn's famous revival of Bach's St Matthew Passion in 1829, an enterprise in which he and his cellist brother Julius had collaborated by helping to write out the parts for the performance. Mendelssohn dedicated to Rietz his Violin Concerto in D minor, the Octet and the Violin Sonata in F minor, Opus 4. Rietz died of consumption in 1832 and Mendelssohn then dedicated to his memory the slow movement of his String Quintet, Opus 18. Julius Rietz went on to a distinguished career, serving as professor of composition at Mendelssohn's Leipzig Conservatory and later as conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra.

The Violin Sonata in F minor received a particularly condescending review in 1825 in the Berliner AIigemeine Musikalische Zeitung from a critic under the pseudonym of Lukas van Leyden (quoted in part in Heinrich Eduard Jacob: Felix Mendelssohn und seine Zeit, Frankfurt am Main, 1959-60), patronising the two young performers. The first movement starts with an Adagio introduction for the violin alone, followed by an Allegro moderato in which the piano offers the first subject, leading to an A flat major second subject, announced by the piano over a sustained bass note. The repeated exposition is duly followed by a central development and a recapitulation in which the second subject, now in F major, is followed by a minor key closing section. The slow movement, in A flat major, is opened by the piano statement of the wistful main theme, then taken up by the violin. A short piano cadenza leads to an E flat major section, with a violin melody accompanied by triplet figuration from the piano. This ends with more dramatic intensity, before a return to the original key and thematic material, now varied. The last movement opens emphatically, its opening section repeated, after which the opening motif provides the substance for contrapuntal exploration. An Adagio cadenza for the violin alone is capped by the forceful closing section.

Mendelssohn owed his early musical training to Carl Zelter, who for nearly thirty years directed the Berlin Singakademie and fostered the interest of his pupil and the Berlin public in the music of J.S. Bach. Zelter had pleased Goethe by his setting of some of the latter's poems, the beginning of a warm friendship, and was responsible for introducing Mendelssohn to Goethe in 1821. Zelter's teaching stimulated Mendelssohn's interest in counterpoint and inculcated in him a sound knowledge of classical musical practice.

The Violin Sonata in F major of 1820 is clear evidence of the soundness of Zelter's teaching and the irrepressible talent of his pupil, in whom he saw one who might outshine, at this stage, the young Mozart. The sonata starts with a monothematic first movement, in which much is made of the opening figure in an Allegro in tripartite classical form. The F minor Andante moves into F major for the second element of its principal theme. This is followed by a variation on the themes and a final version of the F minor theme, which ends the movement. The sonata concludes with a lively Presto, a foretaste of scherzo-type movements to come.

The shorter pieces here included are taken from a volume of exercises written for Zelter between 1819 and 1821, published by the Mendelssohn scholar R. Larry Todd and themselves dated to 1820. The Movement in G minor, classical in form, frames a G major central section. If this echoes Mozart or Haydn, the Andante in D minor is modelled on Bach in its >contrapuntal three-voice texture. It is followed by the Fugue in D minor and Fugue in C minor, both in three-voice texture and perfectly crafted, with a final contrapuntal Allegro in C major, exercises that, it is suggested, Mendelssohn would have taken up his violin to play through with his teacher.

Keith Anderson

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