Coming Home with Felix Mendelssohn’s Cello Works

Natural beauty. © Charles Thibo

Not too far from Luxembourg city, a small natural reserve boast an astonishing variety of flowers. Insiders know were to look for certain types of orchids. As a child I was fascinated by the different colors of the clay soil: dark red, grey, violet. Erosion has made different color patterns visible and they change over the years. That spot is an island of peace, undisturbed, and I remember that when a residential area was built nearby I imagined  blowing up the houses to preserve it in its integrity.

Nowadays we sometimes go there for a walk, either in the summer or on a frosty winter day. The residential area is ugly as ever, but my anarchist inclinations are gone. Each time we get on top of the hill, we marvel at the beauty of that place. A year ago I found there a piece of wood covered with fungi, moss and snow. I had to stop and look and look again. And I felt something warm, something like coming home. Weird, isn’t it?

Free your mind, your emotions

Similar feelings invade me when I listen to Felix Mendelssohn’s two cello sonatas. Coming home… The melodies, though agitated, make me feel comfortable. It’s certainly the deep, warm sound of the cello, enhanced by the piano with its light, crystal clear contrasting melodies. The recording made by Sergei Istomin and Viviana Sofronitsky is one I quite often listen to when I want to let my mind drift, when I want to stop thinking or being rational and precise.

Freeing the mind and freeing any residual emotions – Mendelssohn’s music from the middle of the 19th century is especially proficient in this sense. It just carries you away whether you like it or not. We have seen that already with his Piano Trio in D minor, which goes back to the same period of Mendelssohn’s life.

Excited piano heartbeats

Mendelssohn wrote Sonata No. 1 in B-flat Major (op. 45) in 1838 in Leipzig, while he was about to conduct a series of historical concerts reflecting the past 100 years of composition. With the Gewandhausorchester he would perform works written by Händel, Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Salieri and Beethoven. The composer dedicated his sonata to his brother Paul, an amateur cellist. The sonata reflects the classic form, but, as the British pianist and writer Susan Tomes  wrote in 1991, “the piano writing, with the excited heartbeats common to both sonatas, shows the restless temperament of the nineteenth century.”

The composer wasn’t too proud of this composition at the time. “It isn’t worth much”, he wrote. But was he sincere or just to modest to admit that it is a beautifully conceived piece with a lot of elegance? Schumann observed the composer perform it and noted: “A smile hovers round his mouth, but it is that of delight in his art, of quiet self-sufficiency in an intimate circle…”. His final judgement: “Especially fitting for the most refined family circles.” Not worth much? I don’t think so.

Remembering Johann Sebastian Bach

Sonata No. 2 in D Major (op. 58) saw the light in 1843, again in Leipzig and again it was a year of innovation. Mendelssohn has established a new conservatory in Leipzig with the help of a donor. Among the first generation of teachers were Robert Schumann (piano, score reading), the Thomaskantor Moritz Hauptmann (harmony, composition) and Ferdinand David (violin).

The sonata was written again for Paul, but dedicated to the Russian patron and cellist Count Mateusz Wielhorski. It is written in four movements and the third movement is of a special nature through its direct references to Johann Sebastian Bach, in a way his predecessor in Leipzig. You will hear a distant echo of Bach’s choral works and a rephrasing of Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy. It gives the piece a solemn, spiritual touch. The rephrasing goes back to Mendelssohn’s performance of the Chromatic Fantasy in 1840 when, he had mesmerized the audience through the emphasis he put on Bach’s arpeggios*.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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