Mendelssohn’s piano trios on period instruments
“It is the master trio of today…” wrote Robert Schumann of Felix Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio in D minor, Op. 49. Schumann’s comments appeal to my sense of irony since I was recently contracted to write liner notes for a recording of Schumann’s piano trios.
It wasn’t repertoire with which I was especially familiar but a paying gig is not to be turned down. The Schumann trios don’t hold the same place in the repertoire as the trios of Beethoven, Schubert or Brahms so I was concerned about summoning up the enthusiasm to make a case for them. The truth is the Schumann trios are not great music and probably deserve the scant attention they receive.
But how about the relatively unfamiliar piano trios of Felix Mendelssohn? Judging by what I’ve heard on a new Avie recording by the Benvenue Fortepiano Trio (Eric Zivian, fortepiano; Monica Huggett, violin; Tanya Tomkins, cello), the Mendelssohn trios should have their place in the sun.
Schumann’s praise of the Trio in D minor, Op. 49 is on the money. I probably wouldn’t have identified Mendelssohn as the composer of the stormy Molto allegro agitato opening movement. This is hyper-Romanticism at its best. The second movement Andante con moto tranquillo might strike some as a bit “schmaltzy” but boy oh boy what melodies! We are back in the world of airy flights of fancy in the Scherzo where Mendelssohn certainly asks a fair amount of virtuosity from all. The closing movement is a gushing Allegro appassionato with some high profile fireworks for the pianist. No surprise here, while writing the work, Mendelssohn was offered advice from the composer Ferdinand Hiller about re-working the piano part – Mendelssohn paid heed and the results are fantastic.
The other work on the recording is the Trio in C minor, Op. 66. The Trio bursts out of the gate with a surging Allegro energico e con fuoco that’s plenty intense while the ravishing second movement Andante espressivo rivals Schubert in its tender lyricism. A typically bustling Mendelssohn Scherzo trips along before the soaring Finale—Allegro appassionato with its quotation of the chorale “Vor deinen Thron” closes the work. This is big-boned and heroic music that puts the lie to the belief that much of Mendelssohn’s music is prissy.
While I’m familiar with the work of each of the members of the trio I’ve never heard them play chamber music together. This is a terrific ensemble that makes every note sing. Zivian plays an 1841 Franz Rausch fortepiano and the instrument lacks nothing in muscle. Zivian really turns things lose in the Op. 49 finale and it’s thrilling. Cellist Tanya Tomkins also gets to stand out in the Op. 49 with some rich singing tone in the main themes of the first movement. Violinist Monica Huggett is one of our most treasured period instrument players and her sweet tone and measured vibrato is lovely. For those who think period instrument performances lack warmth or passion, check out this recording on Avie.