Felix MENDELSSOHN-BARTHOLDY (1809 – 1847)
Works for Cello and Piano
Variations concertantes Op. 17, MWV Q 19 (1829) [8:37]
Cello Sonata No. 1 in B flat major, Op. 45, MWV Q 27 (1838) [22:34]
Song without Words for Cello & Piano, Op. 109, MWV Q34 (1847) [3:56]
Assai tranquillo in B Minor, MWV Q 25 (1835) [1:57]
Cello Sonata No. 2 in D major, Op. 58, MWV Q 32 (1843) [23:15]
Christian Poltéra (cello)
Ronald Brautigam (piano)
rec. 2016, Reitstadel, Neumarkt in der Oberpfalz, Germany
BIS BIS-2187 SACD [60:26]
The catalogue of works by Mendelssohn contains a lot of chamber music, a great deal of which was written at a very early age by the precocious youngster. His first three works with an opus number were piano quartets, composed when he was in his early teens and much else also emanates from those years. How much of his chamber music that is frequently played today I don’t know. His string quartets and piano trios pop up from time to time but very little else I can remember hearing during many years as a chamber music enthusiast, not least as organizer of more than one hundred chamber music concerts for our local chamber music society. Mendelssohn’s music in whatever category has always attracted me for its freshness and vitality, for its perfect formal mastery and for its melodic inventiveness.
These are also characteristic features of the complete works for cello and piano on this disc. An inspiration for him to compose for cello was his brother Paul, who was a banker but also a good cellist. Felix’s first composition for the combination, Variations concertantes was dedicated to Paul. At the time of writing the work he had just turned twenty. It was, as far as is known, first performed in London in April 1829, the same year, incidentally, that Mendelssohn revived Bach’s St Matthew Passion. The work opens with a beautiful theme first presented by the piano and then repeated by the cello and followed by eight variations, giving ample opportunities for both musicians to show off their technical acuity. The seventh variation begins dramatically and intensely but then elegantly scales down to tempo primo for the last variation, where we are back where we began. Then the work is rounded off by an animated coda. A charming work that also was met with approval by the London audience.
The first Sonata was also commissioned by his brother Paul and Felix finished it in the autumn of 1838. Obviously he was quite satisfied with it since he sent it to his English publishers with the comment “I like some parts of it very much”. Both Robert and Clara Schumann also admired it, and the whole piece is a vitamin injection. The long first movement is an intense and dramatic conversation between the two instruments that concludes in a powerful climax. The andante follows as a point of rest from the preceding drama, but it is more than that: it is still a conversation but softer and more intimate. In the finale they kind of resume the dispute from the first movement, though even more rhythmically alert, but eventually they seem to run out of arguments and the work dies away in a beautiful pianissimo.
Mendelssohn published eight books with Lieder ohne Worte (Songs without words) for piano, in toto 48 pieces, but in his property left was found a 49th, and there the piano was joined by a cello. It was not published until 1868, more than twenty years after his death, and it was dedicated to a French cellist, whom he had met in Leipzig a couple of years before his demise. Her name was Lise Cristiani and she must have been the first famous female cello virtuoso. The piece is brief but a truly attractive miniature that I certainly will return to. Even briefer, less than two minutes, is Assai tranquillo, which Mendelssohn wrote down in the guest book of Julius Rietz, the man who took over as director of music in Düsseldorf after Mendelssohn. Rietz was himself a cellist and he must have liked the piece so much that he kept it to himself and it was only in 1962 that it became known and not until 2002 it was published. It ends abruptly on the dominant, and Horst A Scholz presumes in the liner notes that this reflects “the composer’s mood when faced with an uncertain future”.
The four movement Sonata No. 2 was also intended for Paul, but it was dedicated to a Russian Count Mathieu Wielhorski, an excellent cellist, and there were plans for a performance for King Frederick William IV with Mendelssohn at the piano. The project unfortunately came to nothing since the Count backed out for lack of confidence. It is a fascinating work, though formally rather unconventional. The opening movement, Allegro assai vivace, is not only vivacious, it is even boisterous, but in a way held in straight reins, leaving a sense of taming a shrew. The scherzo is typically weightless, like so many Mendelssohnian scherzos, with a spider-web thin piano part. In the middle part of the movement it becomes more earthbound, but the weightlessness is gradually resumed for the final bars. A remarkable movement. The adagio opens with arpeggio chords in the piano, creating a hymn like melody and a sense of otherworldliness, a spell that is brutally shattered by the powerful and distinct opening of the finale. It develops into a thrilling conversation, winding between constantly new subjects and once described as “a charming odyssey on the infinite ocean of thoughts”. Fascinating it certainly is and probably points to new phases in Mendelssohn’s development as a composer, had he not met a premature death before he even turned forty.
The playing of and rapport between Poltéra and Brautigam is extraordinary and it is a special pleasure to savour the wonderful tone of Poltéra’s Antonio Stradivari cello “Mara”, built in 1711. Generally speaking it is difficult to imagine this music better played. Certainly the only alternative recording I could find in my collection was one of the second sonata, made in 1976 by Lynn Harrell and James Levine. Their playing cannot be faulted in any way but they haven’t quite the intensity and commitment of Christian Poltéra and Ronald Brautigam.
The recording is, as always with BIS spotless and the liner notes, from which I have culled much of the background information, is a model of its kind.
Readers who, like myself, have lived their lives unawares of treasures available in Mendelssohn’s cello works, should immediately remedy this deficiency through acquiring this disc.
Previous review: Richard Hanlon