Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847): Piano Trio No. 1 in d minor, Op. 49

"This is the master trio of our age, as were the B flat and D major trios of Beethoven and the E flat trio of Schubert in their times. It is an exceedingly fine composition which will gladden our grandchildren and great-grandchildren for many years to come".

Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No 1 in D minor Op 49 is the first and better known of a set of two piano trios. He wrote it in 1839 and it was an immediate hit with no less a personage than Schumann describing it in the glowing terms I’ve quoted above. Mendelssohn wasn’t completely satisfied by his original version of the trio and showed it to his friend and fellow composer Ferdinand Hiller, who was staying with him in Leipzig. Hiller was a fine composer in his own right and Mendelssohn valued his opinion not only as a musician but also because he was a long-time friend both of Liszt and Chopin and was thoroughly well-versed in the music of the ‘new pianoforte school’ . Hiller’s advice was that the trio was very fine as it stood but that the writing for the pianoforte which Mendelssohn had built upon broken chords was a bit old-fashioned. Hearing his friend describe his piece as ‘old-fashioned’ must have been anathemna to Mendelssohn because he immediately sat down and rewrote the piano part in its entirety bringing it far closer to the Romantic style and, incidentally, making it far more difficult to play.

It’s scored for violin, cello and piano and has four movements:

I.     Molto allegro agitato
II.     Andante con moto tranquillo
III.     Scherzo. Leggiero e vivace
IV.     Finale. Allegro assai appassionato

I.     Molto allegro agitato

The trio starts with a magnificent opening theme played by the cello and underlaid by agitated piano chords. These chords transform into arpeggios as the theme repeats itself. Once the opening is concluded Mendelssohn introduces a second song-like theme which dominates the movement’s middle section sometimes as counterpoint and sometimes building to climaxes. There then follows a beautiful moment when the cello is joined by the violin playing an intense and moving descending line – which we’ll hear again later, the movement ends with some animated piano playing.

II.     Andante con moto tranquillo

Mendelssohn famously wrote eight volumes of ‘Songs Without Words’ (Lieder ohne Worte) for solo piano but he also wrote such songs for use in his chamber music and this movement has one of them. We first hear the song in the piano, this is then repeated by the strings. We then hear the violin playing the descending line which heard heard in the preceding movement but this time Mendelssohn develops it into a vigorous musical dialogue before bringing the movement to a close with a delicate rendition of the opening song played by the piano.

III.     Scherzo. Leggiero e vivace

This with its motif being tossed from instrument to instrument is filled with exuberance, there are slightly darker moments scattered throughout to provide some musical ballast and halfway through there’s a hint of another song but this soon passes and the lightness and playfulness returns.

IV.     Finale. Allegro assai appassionato

Mendelssohn marked this final movement ‘appasionato’ – ‘passionately’, but instead of plunging us into it he starts with a quiet and gentle theme that builds and builds driven forward by the piano. The cello then breaks in with a rendition of a sweeping melody before we are returned to the piano reprising the opening the cello once again breaks in but Mendelssohn resolves the contrasts between virtuosity and lyricism in the climactic movement.

If you search for this trio on YouTube you’ll find a wealth of excellent performances many of them live. I was very taken by this performance given at last year’s International Young Artists Concert in Ljubljana, Slovenia, and hearing once again the  Trio Beaux Arts 1968 recording brought back many happy memories, but ultimately I decided to use the performance given at  the 2012 International Joseph Joachim Chamber Music Competition by Trio Gaspard to illustrate the piece.

Enjoy :-)

mfi

The 6th International Joseph Joachim Chamber Music Competition: First Prize Winners Trio Gaspard play Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’s Piano Trio No. 1 in D-Minor Op. 49 during their performance for the final round of the competition. Recorded 2012/10/11 at the University of Music FRANZ LISZT Weimar.

piano: Hyo-Sun Lim
violin: Jonian Ilia Kadesha
cello: Vashti Mimosa Hunter

Video & Description Source: Trio Gaspard | F. Mendelssohn-Bartholdy: Klaviertrio Nr. 1 d-Moll op. 49 – YouTube. Published on 20 Nov 2012 by hfmFRANZLISZTweimar.

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