A trio from the Mozart of Schumann’s days

Memories of July. © Charles Thibo

In July, I wrote about Felix Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor. I described the nostalgic feeling I sometimes have in August: Summer is not yet over, but the days are getting shorter, early morning fog announces the approaching fall. By now, we are well into autumn and I am looking back to the summer – melancholic, but determined to hold on to the beautiful moments I experienced this summer. Mendelssohn has written another piece that seems to describe that mood: Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 49. It is on the same record than the violin concerto with Anne-Sophie Mutter playing the violin, Lynn Harrell as the cellist and André Previn at the piano.

Virtuosity versus clarity

Mendelssohn wrote Op. 49 in the summer of 1839, five years before he composed the violin concerto. An impressive work. A beautiful work. It prompted Robert Schumann to label Mendelssohn as the Mozart of the 19th century, “the most brilliant musician, identifying the contradictions of the time and the first to reconcile [these contradictions]”. What contradictions could that be? Schumann did not elaborate. It could be the contradictions that marked the Romantic period – technological progress and economic success versus social alienation and growing political tension. The German pianist Ferdinand Hiller offered another explanation: Should a piece focus on the display of virtuosity and match the taste of the moment or should its structural integrity and the clarity of its expression be rated more important?

Mendelssohn would defend a more purist approach and insist on the second option when Hiller recommended to add a little “brilliant” veneer to a first draft. Hiller had spent much time in Paris and had been marked by the style of Franz Liszt and Frédéric Chopin. After lengthy discussions, Mendelssohn would agree to some small changes in the first movement. But mostly he remained faithful to his initial idea: “The piece would be the same, and so it may remain as it is.” It was first performed on February 1, 1840 in Leipzig. Mendelssohn executed the piano part.

Praise for the cello

The trio opens with a plaintive melody for the cello, answered by the violin, while the piano accompanies the strings and sets the tempo: molto allegro agitato (fast and agitated). The second movement opens with a piano solo, much like a Romantic Lied (song), answered by the cello and the violin. The third movement offers a surprise as its theme could not be predicted from the preceding movements and again Mendelssohn rushes us through that part. The last movement takes up the mood of the first movement with a dominant part for the cello.

The cello actually is the inofficial star of the trio. It gives the piece it’s insisting character, its emotional power, it loads it up with that melancholy that the piano tries to calm. The Mendelssohn biographer R. Larry Todd writes: “The result is a masterful trio with subtle relationships between the movements, and a psychological curve that incorporates the agitated brooding of the first, the subdued introspection of the second and the playful frivolity of the third. The finale combines all three moods, before reconciling them.” And so it is.

© Charles Thibo

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